Wednesday, October 6, 2010

These things must happen for Yankees to win ALDS

This time last year, the Yankees were the indisputable favorite to win the World Series. They were coming off a 103-win season, an AL East championship, and they had home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

The general consensus was that it was their World Series to lose, and to their credit, they played the role of favorite well, rolling to their 27th championship.

The 2010 season brings quite different circumstances.

The Yankees enter the playoffs as a 95-win team, their second-place finish in the AL East good enough for a wild card bid. By virtue of their wild card status, they won't have home-field advantage in the ALDS or the ALCS. And since the National League won the All-Star Game, they wouldn't have the home-field advantage in the World Series, either.

Four wild card teams have went on to win the whole thing (1997 Marlins, 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins, 2004 Red Sox), but the Yankees haven't had success in the same position. New York has advanced as the wild card three times since the format was created (1995, 1997, 2007) and was bounced out in the first round each time.

Will this year be any different? The answer is yes ... if these 10 things break right for the Bronx Bombers.

10) Brett Gardner needs to play every game. No offense to Austin Kearns, but Austin Kearns is not a good baseball player. That actually was offensive, which leads me to the offense, which leads me to Gardner, who needs to be at the top of the lineup every game making things happen. While the numbers may say Kearns is a better start against left-handed pitching, Gardner adds a much-needed extra dimension to a Yankee offense that has relied too much on the three-run homer.

9) Keep A.J. Burnett off the mound. I'm serious about this. At some point this week, Joe Girardi is going to be tempted to bring Burnett out of the bullpen to get a big strikeout. Two problems with this idea, though: a) Burnett has been a starting pitcher since he was 8, and b) He's terrible right now. Cut your losses and just try to get him right for the ALCS if you're lucky enough to advance.

8) Jorge Posada needs at least one big hit.
Derek Jeter isn't the only member of the Core Four who suffered through a serious decline in production in 2010. Posada struggled throughout the season, and at 38, it's quite probably we're starting to hit the beginning of the end for this great, underrated Yankee. Posada isn't close to the stud who hit .334 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in 2007, and he may not even be close to the Posada of 12 months ago, but he still has enough pop in his bat to change a game. Think back to that game in St. Petersburg last month, when Posada turned a fastball around and smoked it 440-feet to beat the Rays. The Yanks need some more protection behind Robinson Cano, and Georgie will need to deliver.

7) Nick Swisher must bury his postseason demons. It's pretty amazing how much better Swisher is at baseball than he was a year ago. He struggled mightily in the playoffs in 2009, and it became the impetus for a rigourous offseason workout program. He got into serious shape as a result, and his more serious approach paid off with big gains, both offensively and in right field. If he can reverse his playoff fortunes, the season will be a complete success.

6) Joba Chamberlain needs to build the bridge.
Chamberlain's winding career with the Yankees reaches a critical point this week as he appears in his third postseason in New York. The 2010 season has seen his star power dim considerably, his inconsistencies leading to his loss of the setup role. If the Yankees go deep in the playoffs and Chamberlain has a lot to do with it, the talk of successor to Mariano will be back. But if he bombs out and costs the Yankees a game or series? You could see him sitting in the Kansas City Royals bullpen next April. Your move, Hoss.

5) Mariano Rivera must be, well, Mariano Rivera.
The G.O.A.T. had one of the shakiest months of his career in September, blowing three saves and sporting a decidedly un-G.O.A.T.-like 4.76 ERA. At 40, it's fair to ask if age or a hidden injury caused his struggles after the five typically brilliant months that preceded his September swoon. Call me an optimist, but I get the feeling Rivera will be Rivera if and when he gets the ball this week.

4) Mark Teixeira needs to give us something.
As his season spiraled into a deep abyss in September, Teixiera made sure everyone knew he wasn't playing at 100 percent. Hand and foot issues have turned a run-producing machine into a liability this season, and the Yankees can only hope he can figure out a way to make a difference batting out of the three-hole. His defense remains brilliant as always, but the Yankees need more from Teixeira than what he gave them these past six weeks.

3) Andy Pettitte must be healthy.
The sad thing about Pettitte's season is that in July, he was having the best year of his life. A groin injury blew the whole thing up, however, and now he's trying to play catchup when the games count the most. Like Sabathia, the Yankees are leaning heavily on their veteran lefty, as the flameouts of Burnett and Vazquez have amplified the pressure on everyone. Make no mistake: If Pettitte isn't close to 100 percent, the Yankees won't come close to repeating as champions.

2) CC Sabathia needs to be El Hombre.
As you may have heard, A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez were abducted early this season and replaced by talentless drones devoid of any winning mentality. Beyond that, Phil Hughes has been average at best in the second half and Andy Pettitte hasn't proved to anyone that he's healthy enough to be a No. 2 pitcher in the playoffs. This all means Sabathia needs to be on top of his game. A loss in Game One could signal a death knell — they simply can't afford its ace to have a bad night. Other than that, no pressure, Carson Charles.

1) A-Rod must provide a representative encore.
I've said it once, I'll say it again: It. Always. Comes. Down. To. A-Rod. The Yankees needed the playoff MVP-type performance Rodriguez gave them last season, and they'll need big production from their third baseman even more this season. Another way to say this? The Yankees need A-Rod to carry them to the World Series. It's a lot of pressure, but the dirty little secret about No. 13 is that he's better about pressure than people give him credit for.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

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