As you are all aware, the Orioles and Yankees start a three-game series tonight with major implications. If the Orioles sweep (unlikely) they'll end up tied for first place in the AL East. if the Yankees sweep (unlikely), they'll give themselves a lot of breathing room at the top of the division.
In preparation for this series, I sent off a few Yankees-related questions to Pinstripe Alley blogger Tanya Bondurant. I also answered some questions from her which can be found here. Thanks to Tanya for answering, and hopefully her Yankees go down in flames this weekend.
1) The Yankees are obviously the team to beat in the American League, but their once ten-game lead in the AL East is down to just three. What's gone wrong? Are you worried it will continue, or do the Yankees have a handle on things?
I don't think anyone expected the Yankees to run away with the division, so while the ten game lead was nice, I never imagined it would last. Injuries have happened in seemingly rapid succession this season, and it's hard to replicate the big name production lost with guys who were brought in to be part-time players. I'm not a worrier, but the Yankees will need to take advantage of some favorable scheduling down the stretch if they are going to pull this one off and it definitely won't be easy.
2) Which pitchers will the Orioles be facing this weekend and what can we expect from them?
Friday night the Orioles will see Hiroki Kuroda, who has likely been the Yankees' best pitcher this season. He's managed to pitch at least eight innings his last three times out, and he recently flirted with a no-hit bit against the Rangers. The Yankees don't seem to score for him for whatever unlucky reason, so his season could be even more impressive than it already is.
Saturday it will be Freddy Garcia, of five wild pitches against the Orioles earlier this season fame. He relies on smoke and mirrors and when those don't cooperate, it tends to get ugly.
David Phelps gets the start on Sunday in place of the injured Ivan Nova. I irrationally love Phelps and am glad he's getting a shot in the rotation. He's never faced the Orioles as a starting pitcher, but was solid in relief when he was working out of the bullpen earlier this season. His pitches have amazing movement at times, and it's really fun to watch.
3) What will the Yankees lineup without Mark Teixeira look like?
Ugly. Really ugly. Steve Pearce batting cleanup ugly. I'm hoping that was only a one day thing, but there's no way to bat everyone from Russell Martin to Jayson Nix ninth, sadly. It's Jeter, Swisher, Cano, Granderson, and a lot of hoping from there.
4) Which player this season has you the most pleasantly surprised? Which has you the most disappointed?
Most surprising is probably Derek Jeter, just because of how improbable his season has been. I don't know what black magic he's used to make nearly every ground ball he hits make it through the infield, but it's better than the alternative. Ivan Nova is probably the player who has disappointed me the most this season. He has really struggled in every month that doesn't end in -une this year and now he's injured. Really not what was expected out of him after 2011, even though we knew some regression was coming.
Soriano has really been a saving grace out of the bullpen this year, because most everyone figured doom was on the horizon without Rivera. He was hurt and ineffective most of last year, so stepping into the closer role and only blowing three saves has been really impressive. Unfortunately, because he and David Robertson are pretty entrenched in the 8th inning/9th inning roles, it leaves a lot of guys who are only effective against a certain handedness to fill the rest of the innings. That leads to a lot of pitching changes and a lot of frustration when it doesn't work out.
6) Anything the Orioles fans should keep in mind regarding the Yankees as the series starts?
I'm sure none of you guys need the reminder, but the Yankees and Orioles are playing meaningful baseball at the end of August/beginning of September, which is really, really cool from even a Yankee fan perspective. I think it will be interesting to see how that will impact the atmosphere of the games this series and next. And be thankful you have a real catcher. Mainly that, if nothing else.