Agenda set, now Yankees await next opponent
Bombers will face winner of series between Rangers and Rays
NEW YORK -- The Yankees now can be certain they have a flight in their future, heading somewhere to open the American League Championship Series on Friday evening.
But their destination is unsecured, and they will watch along with the rest of the country to see who wins the remaining AL Division Series between the Rays and the Rangers. Texas and Tampa Bay are tied at two games apiece after the Rays won Sunday's matchup, 5-2. The Yankees' ALCS opponent will be decided on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in St. Petersburg.
"They're both great teams," said Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who will get the ball for the first game of the ALCS. "Texas has got all the power, Tampa has got all the speed and the power. We've seen both teams a lot this year. It's going to be a tough series. I'm just happy that we're on to the next round."
Sabathia said that he did not have a rooting preference for the Rangers-Rays series, a stance echoed numerous times as the Yankees emptied bottles of bubbly within the walls of their clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.
Asked whom he'd rather play, Yankees captain Derek Jeter replied, "Whoever wins. You don't wish for a certain opponent because you just might get them."
"With those three guys throwing the way they did these first three games, they're probably going to do well this postseason," said Twins catcher Joe Mauer.
Now, they must wait. Yankees manager Joe Girardi has already promised his players two full days off in the wake of the ALDS victory, with only a Yankee Stadium workout on the agenda for Tuesday. After that, there will be a flight, and no matter the destination, there will be more work to be done.
"I think the whole team is going to enjoy the days off," Mark Teixeira said. "We really battled the last part of the season trying to win the division. It didn't work out for us, but we're going to have to win games on the road anyway. It really doesn't matter. Either team we play, it's going to be a good series."
Advantage: Forget the nine straight postseason games Texas had lost entering postseason play this year -- all to New York -- the Yankees have proven they can beat the Rangers in the here and now, having swept Texas in a three-game series from April 16-18, Texas' only visit to the Bronx this year. New York also expressed some platitudes for Rangers closer Neftali Feliz this year, with no less than Mariano Rivera saying he recognized some similarities to a mid-1990s version of himself, but the Yankees also have to believe they can topple Feliz in a late-inning situation, as they did on Aug. 11 in Arlington. Sabathia has been able to silence Vladimir Guerrero for most of his career (3-for-17, .176). The Yankees can't be intimidated by a power-hitting lineup -- if the game turns into a slugfest (as it could, especially against pitchers not named Cliff Lee), they know they have the Major Leagues' most potent offense to match the firepower. Plus, during their September series in Texas, the Yankees didn't pitch Sabathia, Pettitte or Hughes, instead teasing the Rangers with Javy Vazquez, A.J. Burnett and Dustin Moseley.
Disadvantage: Some believed the Yankees feared Lee so much that they weren't gung-ho about locking up the American League East, preferring instead to try their luck with the Twins. While no Yankee would admit that, what is certain is that the Yankees loved Lee's stuff so much that they wanted it for themselves in late July. The Rangers did not play welcoming hosts to the Yankees during their Sept. 10-12 visit to Rangers Ballpark, and Lee was nasty in his start during that series, returning from a sore lower back to hurl eight innings of one-run, two-hit ball, looking plenty healthy. Many of the Rangers have good career numbers against Andy Pettitte, and Texas has also had a taste of beating Rivera, getting him to blow a save this year.
Advantage: Tampa Bay may have won the AL East and the season series over the Yankees, but no one in New York's clubhouse believes that the gap between the two teams is all that significant. It was by one game in each department, which is a fact Girardi would be sure to reinforce -- Tampa Bay outscored New York by seven runs over the course of 18 games. The Yankees beat both Matt Garza and James Shields in a four-game September split in New York, and while David Price is exceptional, he's not unhittable -- see Nick Swisher (5-for-14, .357, double, homer). Plus, the Yankees aren't intimidated by Tropicana Field in the least. Despite the ear-splitting clatter of the cowbells, the Yankees know that by virtue of their Tampa, Fla., spring roots, their cheering section may be equal to or even greater than the groups showing up to support the Rays.
Disadvantage: As Sabathia said, not only do the Rays have power like Texas would, but they can run -- not a good combination when the Yankees would be starting Jorge Posada, who is not known for his defensive ability, to put it kindly. The Rays had to be scouting when the Red Sox made Posada and Rivera look foolish with four stolen bases in a single inning late in September, and Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton would create headaches for Posada and the pitching staff. There are no secrets between the teams, not after another 18 head-to-head games -- if the Yankees need a scouting meeting to go over, say, Evan Longoria, something is wrong -- but the Rays are aware that their artificial turf beats up the older Yankees and their catwalks infuriate them. If that passes for home-field advantage, they will certainly use it to the best of their abilities. Standout closer Rafael Soriano converted four save opportunities vs. New York this year, though he did take a loss in a July 31 game.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.