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October 5, 1999
New York Yankees vs. Texas RangersEpisode Three in their ongoing saga. The Yankees bounced the Rangers in the Division Series in 1996 and 1998 on their way to World Series titles. The Rangers, in fact, are the only team the Yankees have beaten in the first round, losing to Seattle in 1995 and Cleveland in 1997.
These are the second- and third-highest scoring teams in the American League, although the build is a bit different. The Rangers led the AL with a .293 average and a .479 slugging percentage, and sport a lineup whose only hole is the #9 slot, where Tom Goodwin (.665 OPS) "bats". The core of Ivan Rodriguez, Rusty Greer, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmiero is second only to Cleveland's. Surprisingly good seasons from Royce Clayton and Todd Zeile have given the Rangers an eight-man offense that is actually similar to the 1998 Yankees, who had no real holes in the lineup.
The 1999 Yankees can't say the same. While the Yankees' best hitters, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, had great years, and Chuck Knoblauch rebounded from his mid-career malaise, the rest of the lineup was unspectacular, and the bottom was downright bad, as Scott Brosius (.721 OPS) returned to earth and Jorge Posada (.742 OPS) slipped back from his big 1998. On nights when Joe Girardi (.625 OPS) catches, the Yankee offense can come to a dead stop after the #7 hitter.
The Yanks did score 900 runs, so it's not all gloom and doom. Posada hit much better in the second half, and the addition of Darryl Strawberry, who hits when he's healthy and not incarcerated, will enhance the middle of the lineup. There is no question, though, that the Rangers have a superior lineup and can put more runs on the board than the World Champs.
The Ranger bench is not as deep nor as good as the 1998 squad, and it appears that Johnny Oates has compensated for this by minimzing its use: his eight regulars all had at least 465 at-bats, and only Goodwin's injury woes kept all of the Ranger starters from reaching that level. Only one player, Roberto Kelly, had between 200 and 400 at-bats. Look for nine players to get upwards of 90% of the Texas plate appearances, and Luis Alicea, Gregg Zaun, Scarborough Green and Jon Shave to disappear shortly after the first-game introductions.
The Yankee bench isn't much better, although Joe Torre is more inclined to use it. Strawberry or Chili Davis give him one good bat to pinch-hit for Girardi when he starts, and Chad Curtis and Jim Leyritz have their uses. The backup infielders, Luis Sojo and Clay Bellinger, are wasted roster spots. Overall, the benches are a push, and should be non-factors.
Massive advantage, Yankees. The only Ranger starter who could crack the Yankee rotation is Aaron Sele. After Game 1, the Rangers will use Rick Helling, who gave up 40 homers and was brutal in September, and Esteban Loaiza, who pitched well in the second half after the team got tired of John Burkett. Given the available options (Burkett, Mike Morgan, Jeff Fassero), it's a pretty good bet that Texas would go back to Sele in Game 4.
The Yankees have three perfectly good candidates to start Game 7 of any playoff series, and have made an interesting statement by going with Orlando Hernandez in Game 1. By not opening with nominal staff ace Roger Clemens and relegating David Cone to the fourth starter slot, the Yanks really appear to be saying that they're planning for more than just the Division Series. Yes, El Duque has been the team's most consistent pitcher in the second half, but I seriously doubt we'll see him pitch Game 1 of any subsequent series.
If the Rangers are going to win this series, they will have to do it here. Their bullpen was the key to putting the division away early, but its second-half struggles were why they didn't actually clinch until September 25th. Northern League refugee Jeff Zimmerman was having a historic season until June, when he tired despite Oates' careful handling. He absolutely has to be effective for this team to win, because the starters just aren't going to get them into the eighth inning.
The rest of the Ranger pen is nothing to sneeze at. Closer John Wetteland suffered through a nasty slump wrapped around the All-Star Break in which he briefly lost the closer job to Zimmerman. But he allowed just two runs and two walks in August and September, and has his velocity back. The loss of Mike Munoz to a freak toe injury hurts, as he was an important piece--especially so against the left-handed-hitting Yankees--but rookie Mike Venafro and Tim Crabtree are good weapons against the Yankee lineup, and give Oates three excellent pitchers to work the seventh and eighth innings with.
The Yankee pen is not as good as it has been in the past. While closer Mariano Rivera is still one of the best in baseball, the guys in front of him have been hurt (Jeff Nelson) or sporadically effective (Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton). In a bit of a surprise, Torre kept Hideki Irabu around to pitch middle relief, eschewing Jason Grimsley.
Look for Torre to ride his starters hard, especially the big three, and go to the bullpen only when absolutely necessary.
Edge, Rangers. The Rangers' best defensive element, Ivan Rodriguez' arm, won't be a significant factor because the Yankees don't run very much; only Chuck Knoblauch attempted even 30 steals. But the Rangers have quality gloves at shortstop, center field and left field, and only Todd Zeile at third base is much below average.
The Yankees have struggled defensively at times. Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problems have gotten most of the attention, but the outfield defense isn't anything special on the corners, and the infield's reputation far outpaces its actual range. The two Yankee catchers are among the worst in baseball at plate-blocking, although Jorge Posada is becoming a fairly good throwing catcher.
This is as closely matched as these two teams have been in their three postseason series. The Rangers have the better offense and, the biggest difference, a superior bullpen. The Yankees counter with their top-tier rotation and a comparable lineup.
The key for both teams is going to be getting a lead early. The Rangers want to get to "Zimmerman Time" up a couple of runs. The Yankees want to avoid just that, by trying to force out the Ranger starters and get Mike Morgan or Danny Patterson onto the mound, as well as give their better starting pitchers a chance to work from ahead.
I think the Yankees are going to do a better job of getting ahead, and I expect them to advance to the ALCS. New York in 4.