One of the ramifications of having to use Cliff Lee twice in the ALDS is the Rangers now can not pitch their ace against the Yankees until game three of the ALCS. As a result, the Rangers will need to rely on CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis to get the series off to a good start before unveiling Lee at Yankee Stadium.
Although being forced to hold Lee back until the series shifts to New York is a definite disadvantage, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if the Rangers can take one of the first two games of the series. Unfortunately for the Rangers, both pitching matchups will favor the Yankees, so getting a game at home could prove to be a difficult task. Should they be able to accomplish it, however, the formula for victory becomes clear: win one of the first two games, both of Lee’s starts and then beat AJ Burnett.
It is very likely that the Yankees will go with C.C. Sabathia in games one, four and seven (the last two on three day’s rest) and hand the ball to Andy Pettitte in games two and six, leaving one game a piece for Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett. It would be easy for the Yankees to simply “go in order” and have Hughes pitch game 3 and Burnett pitch game 5, but that could actually be playing right into the Rangers’ hands.
The idea of conceding game three to Cliff Lee by going with AJ Burnett has been kicked around, but that logic fails because you simply can not give away games in a short series. However, that doesn’t mean Burnett isn’t the one who gives the Yankees the best chance to win that game. As the old adage goes, the best way to beat an ace pitcher is to oppose him with one of your own. Obviously, no is going to mistake AJ Burnett for an ace, but at the same, just about everyone would acknowledge that he can pitch like one at any time.
Inconsistency has always been a Burnett hallmark, but in 2010 he trended even more greatly toward the lesser extreme. Of his 33 total starts, Burnett posted a game score below 35 in exactly one-third. On the flip side, he had 10 starts with a game score above 60, including five above 70. So, going on the assumption that Burnett is either going to pitch very well or very poorly, what should the Yankees do?
Cliff Lee’s average game score in 2010 was 60, but his median tally was 70, so the question becomes who is most capable of matching him: Burnett or Hughes? Although Hughes has been much more consistent and far less prone to having blow-up games, he has only topped a game score of 70 on three occasions. On that basis, Burnett seems to be the best option in game three. However, there is more to consider.
Even if you accept that Burnett is more likely than Hughes to pitch a great game, that doesn’t mitigate the risk of a stinker. However, the same would also be true if he was to start game five. Now, the question becomes, in what game would an AJ Burnett implosion be most damaging? The most obvious answer seems to be game five.
If the Yankees go with Hughes in game three and lose a low scoring game to Lee, the series could then hinge on the efforts of Burnett in game five. With C.J. Wilson pitching that game, the Yankees’ offense would presumably have a much greater say in the outcome, but if Burnett were to have one of his awful outings, it would be rendered moot. On the other hand, if Burnett was tapped for game three, not only would the Yankees have a better chance of matching Lee, but they would have much less risk heading into what could be a pivotal fifth game.
Another thing to consider is that if Hughes is scheduled for game five, he could be available for an inning in one of the first two games, which would follow a formula that has seemed to work well for him. Otherwise, his game three start would come on nine full days of rest, and Hughes has seemed to lose command under such circumstances.
Obviously, if the Yankees are not planning to go with Sabathia in three games, the equation changes. In that scenario, it would be more beneficial to have Hughes go earlier in the series so he could be ready to pitch a second game if needed. That doesn’t seem to be in the plans, however. Judging by Joe Girardi’s use of Sabathia in last year’s ALCS and World Series, it seems almost a given that the big lefty will work on three days rest. As a result, the best way to win the series and beat Cliff Lee could center on AJ Burnett, which probably isn’t how Brian Cashman figured it when he tried to acquire the Rangers’ ace back in July. Or, then again, maybe that’s exactly why he was so intent on getting him.