With the Yankees prevented by rule from playing the Red Sox in the first round, and the Angels cruising toward the second playoff "seed," it's almost certain that the Bombers will end up taking on the AL Central champion in the divisional series. Until recently, that seemed likely to be the Detroit Tigers, but their recent poor play has put them danger of being caught by the Minnesota Twins, who are currently two and a half games behind. Even lifelong Tigers fans such as your correspondent are having a difficult time getting into this pennant "race"; neither team is particularly good (the Tigers got themselves into the mess by losing five out of six games to the goddamned Royals) and whoever wins the division will still be a huge underdog. But still, it's a short series and anything could happen; the Yankees obviously want the best possible matchup, no matter how much they're favored. Which team should they hope to see in the first round?
Why to root for a series with the Tigers.
1. They are a terrible, terrible offensive team. Eleventh in the league in total scoring, the Tigers have one great hitter (Miguel Cabrera) backed by guys who range from okay to awful. Their second-best hitter, Curtis Granderson, has an OPS of .485 against left-handed pitching this season; if he even bats at all against likely starters CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite, he won't hit well. The Yanks' biggest weakness at the moment is inconsistency from some of their starters, and a few matchups against the Tigers' tepid lineup could certainly help them get back in the groove.
2. Their closer is just crying out to be the victim of a dramatic ninth-inning rally. Fernando Rodney has improbably converted 34 of 35 save opportunities this year with a 3.74 ERA despite walking a hearty 35 batters (Mariano has walked twelve in about the same number of innings). Number-crunching analysts tells us that closers are crucial in the playoffs, and the Twins have a much better guy, Joe Nathan, in that role.
3. The revenge factor. The Tigers upset the Yankees in the 2006 divisional round. In case you've forgotten, Yankees fans, here's one of those great low-quality, fan-shot videos of people in the grandstand losing their minds on the clinching play. I'm going to go watch it a few times while you sit here and suck on it.
Why to root for a series with the Twins.
1. You won't have to face the Tigers' starting pitching. Detroit's greatest assets this year are its top three starters — Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and Seton Hall Prep graduate-slash-Rookie-of-the-Year-candidate Rick Porcello. Verlander and Jackson have nasty strikeout stuff while Porcello is a ground-ball pitcher backed by an excellent infield, so it's not hard to picture them putting together three great starts and carrying the Tigers through a short series. The Twins, meanwhile, have the AL's fourth-worst staff by ERA; the best that can be said about them is that they pitch to contact and don't walk a lot of batters, a skill that shouldn't worry the Yanks' lineup of crushers.
2. It will put the MVP into the right man's hands. If the Twins end up winning the pennant, a vast amount of the credit will have to go to Joe Mauer, the catcher who's having an unfathomably good offensive season while playing the game's most important and demanding defensive position. The only reason he might not win the MVP is the crazy notion, propagated by this very website, among many others, that Derek Jeter or Mark Teixeira should get the award because the Twins aren't good enough, or something. Hey, I can't explain it clearly if it doesn't make sense in the first place. But if the Twins make the playoffs, there is simply no reason in the universe not to give Mauer the hardware.
3. The Twins have lain down like dogs in their last three playoff series, twice losing to the Yankees. It's true that that's a pretty small sample size and that those teams featured different players, but in the no-atheists-in-a-foxhole sense, wouldn't you rather play those chokers instead of a team like the Tigers, who, it happens, completely devastated the Yankees in 2006 with a historic, inspirational, and utterly dominating performance?
Please e-mail me personally if you would like me to describe that series in any further detail. I could go on and on.