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Hartnett: Wild Card Wednesday Produces Difficult Path For Yankees

'Hart of the Order'
By Sean Hartnett
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The aftermath of 'Wild Card Wednesday' has presented the New York Yankees with the toughest road possible to the World Series.  I had my fingers firmly crossed that the Yankees would face the Texas Rangers rather than the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS and that the crumbling Boston Red Sox would keep the surging Tampa Bay Rays out of the playoff picture.

Instead the opposite happened and I'm not entirely sure the Yankees can make it out of the first round.  The possibility of facing Justin Verlander two times in the ALDS gives me the shivers as even paired against CC Sabathia, I see him out-dueling the Yankees' ace.  It's not just Cy Young-to-be Verlander that worries me but also Doug Fister who went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA since being acquired from the Seattle Mariners.  If Max Scherzer can pitch anywhere near the level he's capable of, the Tigers will march on to the ALCS without breaking much of a sweat.

Still, the Yankees can beat Detroit by out-running and out-slugging them.  The Tigers finished the year as MLB-worst in stolen bases while the Yankees were 4th overall in steals and led all of baseball with 222 home runs.  Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta are all threatening hitters but the Yankees have a deeply powerful lineup from top-to-bottom.

Curtis Granderson has carried the Bombers throughout the regular season with 41 home runs and numerous clutch hits.  Mark Teixeira found a power surge late in the year that took his home run total to 39.  Robinson Cano is possibly the Yankees' best all-around hitter and trailed only Granderson to finish second in the American League in RBIs with 118 RBIs.  Even their number eight hitter, Russell Martin collected 18 homers and 65 RBIs.

The key player I'm yet to mention is 'X-factor' Alex Rodriguez.  His health could make or break the Yankees' chances of moving on to the ALCS as he's currently dogged by a troublesome right knee.  If healthy, A-Rod is able to carry the Yankees through single-handedly but if he isn't 100%, all eyes will be on Teixeira to produce in big spots.  Teixeira has struggled mightily in the playoffs since joining the Yankees and a constant decrease in regular season statistics is cause for concern.  The hope is that his two monster home runs in the final game against Tampa Bay are a sign that Tex is back to his best.

Overall, I believe the Yankees' offense can send the Detroit packing in the ALDS and that Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia can do just enough to tame Tiger batters.  I'm not confident they can do the same when matched against the Tampa Bay Rays.

By allowing Tampa Bay to come all the way back from a 7-0 deficit, the Yankees have set up a potentially difficult meeting in the ALCS.  Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon preaches a brand of mistake-free baseball and believes that his Rays can win games in a number of ways.

Whether by manufacturing runs or via the long ball, the Rays are equipped to make a deep postseason run.  While most of the hitters aren't carrying numbers that 'leap off the page,' collectively their lineup is tougher than statistics bear out.  If you polled managers around the league and asked them which hitter they'd least want to face in pressure situations, Johnny Damon's name would finish high on their list.

Evan Longoria is also a player who has the flair for the dramatic as seen in his two home run, four RBI performance against the Yankees that helped send the Rays into the playoffs.  Longoria suffered through an atypical year where his average fell 50 points from 2010 to a mark of .244.  We all know that the playoffs are a clean slate and Longoria is getting hot at the right time.  Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist are underrated powers sources as the two combined for 39 home runs and Casey Kotchman is a discerning batsman.

Tampa Bay finished the regular season with the least amount of errors committed in the major leagues and tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for first in fielding percentage.  Study the Rays closely and you'll notice that they don't beat themselves in the field or on the base paths.

The Rays' best asset is actually their starting pitching.  James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson are coming off tremendous regular seasons.  David Price is a gutsy pitcher who has both awe-inspiring talent and the ability to raise his game in the postseason.  Add solid number four starter Jeff Niemann to the mix and you'll see why Tampa Bay has one of the strongest rotations in baseball.

Kyle Farnsworth of 2011 isn't exactly the same as the 2008 Farnsworth who struggled mightily under the pressure of wearing the pinstripes.  Farnsworth has turned around his career since joining the Rays and has molded himself into an intimidating closer.  If there is one weakness that could haunt the Rays it would be the shaky bridge leading to Farnsworth.

Last night, I wasn't celebrating when the Red Sox fell to their doom and the Rays completed their unforgettable comeback.  I know a lot of Yankee fans who were taking plenty of joy in seeing Boston self-destruct but having the Rays out of the playoffs would have been most beneficial to the Yankees' postseason plans.  If the Bombers are able to get past the Tigers, a meeting of the Red Sox or Rangers would be an easier route to the World Series than what I believe will be the ALCS champions in Tampa Bay.

I'm not underestimating the Rangers who are a terrific hitting ballclub that also have a strong rotation and a bullpen that is superior to the Rays.  I just believe that Tampa Bay have the kind of rotation that the Yankees can't handle as opposed to the Rangers or the shoddy, now eliminated Red Sox.  That's why I have the Yankees bowing out in the ALCS.  The Rays are just a too finely put together ballclub.

Yankee fans – do the Bombers have what it takes to get past the Tigers?  Are the Rays the team to beat in the American League or are the Yankees' the favorite to reach the World Series?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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