With so much riding on the outcome tonight, it just feels appropriate that the Yankees will hand the ball to Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda, of course, anchored the Yankees’ rotation when C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were out with injuries, and now the Yankees will need at least one more big performance from him to put them within reach of the ALCS. Kuroda did seem to wear down a little bit in September and set a new career high with 219.2 innings pitched in 2012, but he gave the team seven strong in his final outing against the Red Sox on the final day of the regular season, and with a fully stocked bullpen the Yankees will only need him to keep them in the game through the early going before turning it over to the relievers if need be. Of course, they’ll also need to score some runs for him, but that’s another matter entirely.
Kuroda made two starts against the Orioles this year, both at Yankee Stadium, and held the Birds to a 2.93 ERA and .231/.250/.346 slash line in 15.1 innings pitched. His last outing against them came back on August 31st, when he faced his counterpart for tonight, Miguel Gonzalez, and allowed four runs on two home runs over 8.1 innings pitched. Kuroda had pretty good success against all of the Orioles’ hitters this year, with only Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters having an OPS over .700 against him, and none of those three owning a mark better than .762.
Get to the starter:
The Orioles’ bullpen is really good. Everyone knows that. And with the exception of Jim Johnson‘s disaster of a ninth inning in Game One, they’ve performed about as well as you would have expected them to so far in the series. That means that the Yankees’ offense really has to make some hay against Baltimore’s starters, but so far Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have combined to hold the Yankees to just four runs over 12 innings. That despite entering their starts dealing with an injured knee and a month’s worth of underwhelming performance, respectively. The Yankees need to get that turned around soon, but they’ll be facing a starter who has had their number so far this season in Miguel Gonzalez tonight.
Death by matchup:
Speaking of the Orioles’ bullpen, how imposing do they look right now, especially their setup duo of Darren o’Day and Brian Matusz? O’Day has been very good for weeks now, and is arguably their best reliever right now, especially against right-handed pitchers, while Matusz has been hell on lefties, and his domination of Nick Swisher makes him a real weapon for the O’s late in close games here. Seriously, how do you stack your lineup to avoid these guys if you’re Joe Girardi? Maybe Ichiro-Jeter-Swish-Cano-Tex-Alex-Granderson? I can’t think of a better way to do it, but I’m pretty sure we won’t see that configuration when the lineups come out in a little bit.
Brett the Jet:
I mentioned this very briefly yesterday, but Girardi’s got to find a way to utilize Brett Gardner as a bench player in this series. Pinch running for Teixeira late in close games is the obvious answer, but you could have him run for Swisher or even A-Rod too. In general I think pinch running is kind of a low margins move in all but the most desperate of ninth inning scenarios, but Gardner is not your typical bench player either. The ability to use him to upgrade both your base running and outfield defense late in the game is a definite advantage for Girardi, and he already squandered it once in Game Two. That’s a mistake he should be eager to avoid repeating.
Own the moment:
I think psychological factors tend to be overstated in general, and especially in the playoffs, but that said I’d really like to see the Yankees get ahead early tonight. That’s mostly because I want them to score more runs than the Orioles, of course, but I think there could be a real tangible benefit to getting ahead as early as possible for the Yankees, who are obviously more experienced than the Orioles when it comes to big playoff moments. Keep the crowd active and engaged in the game, and really just do everything you can to make the gravity of the situation as apparent as possible. I don’t think the Orioles will necessarily fold or anything, but they did strikeout a lot as a team this year, so if you can get them to press even a little bit it can only work to your advantage.