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September 21, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

I don't have data or anything, but it sure seems like the Yankees take the day off when they're facing a rookie they've never seen. It's probably not all that bad, but worse than expected, which makes it seem a lot worse than it is.

Well, they lost to a rookie last night, and while they were able to come close to a nice comeback in the 8th and 9th it just wasn't enough, and they followed up a couple of great wins against a great team with a lousy loss against a lousy team. Gotta love baseball.

The Yankees haven't clinched the AL East yet, and if Boston sweeps next weekend they need only make up 1½ games to win the division. But considering that the Yankees have a relatively easy schedule outside of the series next weekend, and that they'll be facing the Twins in their last three games with almost nothing of importance at stake for the Twins, it's not going for Boston to even do that.

And sweeping isn't going to be easy, either. While the decision to keep Hernandez on his normal rest and having Esteban Loaiza lose today and next Sunday in Fenway will make things a bit tougher on the Yankees, I don't think anyone should be expecting a sweep.

So everyone who was worrying about the division title in the last month can give it a rest, they've got to screw up royally to blow this thing, and there's no reason to expect they will.

Now we can look forward to the playoffs, and the possible opponents. Oakland and Anaheim are duking it out in the West, while the Twins clinched the Central last night. Who would be a better matchup for the Yankees?

The A's have the "Big Three", some dangerous hitters, and a decent lineup overall. The Yankees won two classic five-game series' against Oakland in 2000 and 2001, which seems ages ago. This year the Yankees have handled the A's very well, but they haven't dominated them. Obviously, you'd like to have the choice to bypass the first round completely and move on to the ALCS, but if you had to choose the team you'd least hate to play, I'd say it's Oakland. They can take these guys, even though it won't be easy by any means.

The Angels are in pretty much the same position for the division title that the Red Sox were on Friday, without having the Wild Card to fall back on. They'll only make the playoffs if they catch Oakland, but six remaining head-to-head games make that a lot more possible than it would be if those games weren't there.

The first two times the Yankees and Angels faced off, the Yankees won 2 of 3 games, but it was hardly easy. Then in August, the Halos swept into the Bronx and swept the Red Sox back into the AL East race. The Yankees are almost certain to make a better showing against Anaheim should they meet again, and Anaheim's starting rotation doesn't inspire fear, but they have such a dangerous lineup you don't want to have to face them.

And then there's the Twins, who the Yankees knocked out in four games last season. The final result of that series belies the closeness of it, as the Twins appeared to be in control at first before the Yankees took Game 2. In August Minnesota crushed the Yankees in a couple of games at the Metrodome before their great comeback was overcome by a Yankees comeback in the ninth. The Yankees are better than that, and they're better than the Twins, but there is a Wild Card in this matchup, and that Wild Card is Johan Santana.

Santana is the AL Cy Young Award winner this season, unless the voters are stupid. So, he's probably not the AL Cy Young Award winner this season, but he should be, because he's been the most dominant pitcher in the American League.

We've played this game before, though. Obviously, having a great pitcher is an advantage in a short series, but it's not the automatic win that it's hyped as. Yes, if Santana wins both his start, the Twins only need to win one of the other three, but it's never that simple. Boston is 2-3 in postseason series' in the Pedro era, and they were 1-4 in the Clemens era. Seattle was 1-2 with Randy Johnson, and while the Diamondbacks won the World Series with Johnson and Schilling in 2001, they were taken to the brink twice that postseason, and got swept in the first round the next year. The Braves were only 10-8 with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

I don't want to face Santana, it's going to be tough to beat him and frustrating to lose to him. But if the Yankees play the Twins and sneak out a win in a Santana start, then the advantage swings heavily in their favor. Brad Radke's not a bad pitcher, he's had a very good year and has generally been quite good in his career, but he's not the type of guy you fear going up against. None of these matchups is going to be easy for the Yankees to get past, but even with the great starter for Minnesota, none of these matchups is going to be monumentally tough to win, either.

The Yankees can win the World Series, even without Brown, even without Giambi. I don't know if they will, but if I did it wouldn't be much fun to watch, would it?