Game One is a Must-Win for Yankees versus Tigers

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The Detroit Tigers open their post season play this year in the same place they did in 2006: the Bronx. In a series that is widely considered too close to call, soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander will take the ball tonight against former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia.

The Tigers opened the season in New York, dropping two of three to the Yankees. The two clubs met again in early May, with Detroit claiming three of four at home to take the season series four games to three.

May was an awfully long time ago.

Verlander hasn’t had much success in New York, going 0-2 with a 4.00 ERA in three career starts at the latest version of Yankee Stadium. The last time he pitched there was Opening Day, when he allowed three runs on three hits and four walks in six innings of work. While he struck out eight in that game, it took him 114 pitches to get through six frames. Had that line come in June instead of March, I’m sure Verlander would have gone back out there for the seventh, as he usually hasn’t even broken a sweat at 114 pitches.

Even so, Joel Sherman of the New York Post says that the Yankees can have success by driving Verlander’s pitch count up in same way they did when facing Pedro Martinez in his heyday with Boston.

"The Yankees were able to beat the Pedro Red Sox because they worked the count to shorten his outings, their starters matched Martinez and their bullpen outpitched the Boston pen. That is the formula the Yankees need against Verlander — and one with which they are familiar."

As Sherman notes, the Yankees were the only team to beat the Tigers twice this year in games in which Verlander started. JV didn’t figure in either decision, by posted a 4.50 ERA and worked only a total of 12 innings in those games, tossing 127 pitches to get through six innings of his home start versus New York on May 2. Verlander issued four walks in each of those two starts. In 32 starts against everyone else, Verlander never issued more than three walks in a start.

The Yankees, of course, are countering with an ace of their own in Sabathia. The big left hander has made a season’s worth of starts versus the Tigers, posting a 15-12 record and pedestrian 4.54 ERA in just over 200 career innings. He allowed six earned runs on five walks and 16 hits in 13 innings over two starts against the Tigers this year, posting an 0-1 record.

Even when you factor in Sabathia’s stellar record at Yankee Stadium (26-7, 3.08 ERA in 47 starts), you have to figure that this game is at best a coin flip for New York. Verlander would be given the edge in a pitching match-up against just about anyone in baseball this year, so the Yankees are in for a tough test.

If the Tigers can take Game One, they will have a much larger advantage that it would initially appear. The Game Two starters will be Doug Fister versus Ivan Nova and while the rookie Nova has been impressive, the pressure that could be facing him is tremendous.

The Yankees plan to use Sabathia twice in this series, with the plan being for him to pitch on short rest in Game Four if the Yanks are behind two games to one. My question is wouldn’t you rather have Sabthia working a Game Five instead of Bartolo Colon?

By starting Sabathia in the series opener, the Yankees might be giving their club the best possible chance to win a game against Verlander, but even with Sabathia on the hill, the odds are probably no better than 50/50. Had they chosen instead to use Nova in the opener and hold Sabathia back for games two and five, I feel they would have given themselves a much greater chance to win the series. Yes, they may be at a disadvantage in the opener, but even with Sabathia going they aren’t a favorite to win that game.

Now, if the Yankees lose Game One, they have to turn to a rookie in the post-season needing to win to avoid going down two games at home. That’s a ton of pressure; pressure that Sabathia has faced before. Nova has not. Plus, If they had given Nova the Game One start and somehow found a way to win that game, they would have their ace on the mound in Game Two, and would be a clear favorite in that game, even considering how well Fister has been going for the Tigers.

Of course, it works the other way as well, I suppose. By starting their pitchers in the order they have chosen, the Yankees could be sending Nova to the mound with the comfort of knowing his club already has a game in hand should Sabathia and the Yankees win tonight.

As good as Nova has been, and he has been good this year, Fister has been among the best in baseball since coming to the Tigers. Considering the pitching match-up facing the Yankees on Saturday, all of the pressure in tonight’s game falls on the broad shoulders of Sabathia. The Yankees cannot afford to lose this game.

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