It’s been nothing but gorgeous weather here in the mid-Atlantic for the past month or so, but October came in with a vengeance yesterday evening. I, for one, went from wearing shorts on a trip to the park yesterday morning to sleeping in a sweatshirt with the windows thrown open overnight, and it’s only gotten more stark today. It’s cool, it’s wet, and there’s no break in sight for this evening. Local forecasts are calling for temperatures in the mid 50s and an increasing chance of precipitation at game time, though more on the level of light showers than torrential downpours. So expect the game to be played under cold(ish), wet, conditions. Just how playoff baseball in the Northeast is supposed to be, right?
It’s not very often that C.C. Sabathia feels like the less important pitcher in a playoff match up, but in the early going all eyes are going to be on Jason Hammel today. Cleared to start this weekend, Hammel will be making his first appearance since a start all the way back on September 11th, and only his third start since July 13th, just after the All-Star break. The Orioles are no doubt hoping he won’t show any rust early, and can be efficient with his pitches in order to get as deep into the game as possible on what’s likely to be a pretty tight pitch count. The Yankees, on the other hand, will want to force him to make quality pitches, and should probably be expected to attempt to work the count pretty hard against him in the first turn through the order, at least.
Hammel’s numbers against the Yankees in his career are pretty brutal. In eight career starts against the Bombers, he’s pitched to a 6.20 ERA and allowed a slash line of .310/.382/.533 over 45 innings. A big reason why? He’s allowed 10 home runs in that time frame. On the bright side for the Orioles, he was a bit better in his three starts against the Yankees this year, posting a 3.96 ERA and a 14-7 strikeout to walk ratio over 16 innings. On the other hand, the Yankees still managed a .357 OBP against him, an even 20 points better than their overall season total of .337.
Hammel’s most recent start against the Orioles was his first game back from the DL a month ago yesterday. That was the opening game of the four game set in Camden Yards, in which the Yankees rallied to tie the game off of Pedro Strop in the eighth inning, before David Robertson and Boone Logan forgot that they were supposed to keep the ball inside of the fences in the bottom of the inning. Hammel lasted five innings and struck out six Yankees to just two walks, six hits, and one run allowed, but he was spotted a 4-0 lead after the first inning by David Phelps. Hopefully he doesn’t have the same luxury against Sabathia tonight.
On the other hand, there was no doubt who the Yankees would be turning to to start the series, as C.C. Sabathia prepares to anchor the postseason rotation for the fourth consecutive year. Sabathia had arguably his weakest season in pinstripes this year, thanks mostly to two separate stints on the disabled list, but he was generally solid when he was in rhythm, and with a division title and postseason berth clinched, all that matters now is how he pitches for the duration of the Yankees’ postseason run. If he dominates opposing lineups this month, approximately no one will care about his early September struggles.
In addition to being the designate staff ace, Sabathia also enters the series as the Yankees’ hottest starter. A shaky early September long behind him, Sabathia has gone eight innings in each of his last three starts, allowing just four runs in that span with a strikeout to walk ratio of 28-4. Best of all where the Yankees are concerned, he got his home run problem under control, allowing just a single long ball in those three games, a token shot by Daniel Nava this past Monday when the Yankees already had a comfortable lead over Boston.
On the other hand, Sabathia’s numbers against Baltimore this year are just downright ugly. In three starts against the O’s, all of which came at Oriole Park, Sabathia accumulated 18.1 innings, in which time he posted a 6.38 ERA, gave up four homes runs, and struck out 19 Orioles to six walks. Three of those home runs came in his last outing on September 8th, when the big guy allowed five runs in 6.1 innings in the game that the Yankees lost when Jerry Meals erroneously called Mark Teixeira out at first base on the last play of the game. That was certainly his worst performance against Baltimore in 2012, but he allowed at least four runs each time he pitched against the Birds.
On the offensive side of the ledger, there’s no doubt that this is Robinson Cano’s team to carry, and the Yankees’ clean up hitter will come in to the series as the hottest hitter on the planet. Cano finished the regular season by going 24 for 39, getting multiple hits in his final nine games, and an extra base hit in three of his final four games. Cano loves hitting at Oriole Park as well, hitting .364/.409/.582 with 11 home runs in 297 career plate appearances there. That’s one thing the Orioles weren’t able to turn around this season, as Cano hit .342/.419/.474 in the Yankees’ nine games in Baltimore, though they did at least manage to keep him from hitting any home runs to this point.
Cano’s counterpart in the lineup and in importance is Adam Jones. The Orioles’ best player had a career year in 2012 and jumped onto the national radar while securing a shiny new contract in the process. Jones has also had Sabathia’s number in his career, hitting .341/.400/.659 with three home runs and six total extra base hits in 45 plate appearances against the big guy, so not letting Jones beat him will be doubly important this evening.
Predictions about short playoff series are really a fool’s errand, but here’s one thing I feel confident projecting:the Baltimore crowd will be as lively as any you’ll see anywhere this month. A decade and a half of losing has a way of obscuring it, but Baltimore is a tremendous sports town, and though the Ravens have become more relevant than the baseball team over the last decade, the Orioles are a generations long tradition who actually were one of the sport’s crown jewels once upon a time. In other words, the entire town is bursting at the seams with excitement (the last time I checked, standing room only tickets for tonight were going for $130 apiece), and there will be a lot of energy in the crowd early on.
Paradoxically, that could potentially hinder the Orioles more than it helps them. Large, hostile, October crowds are nothing new to the Yankees, obviously, but the atmosphere will be something a lot of Orioles have no prior experience with, so keeping their emotions in check and avoiding getting too pumped up will be something they have to guard against.