It’s hard not to get caught up in all the hyperbole about this year’s ALCS. Yes, Cliff Lee was historically dominant last night, mowing down 24 of the 27 Yankees he faced, 13 via strikeout. Yes, the Yankees have been embarrassingly inept against a team that won five fewer regular season games and pays its postseason roster $146 million less annually. Yes, tonight’s pinstriped starter, AJ Burnett, hasn’t won a game in 82 days (thanks to Buster Olney for that stat). As much as I would like to believe all the writers and pundits declaring this morning that the end is near in the Bronx, the harsh reality is that the Rangers have a one-game edge in a best-of-seven series.
Looking at each game, the Rangers have every reason to be confident. AJ Burnett has a 6.61 ERA in his last 12 starts and hasn’t started a game in almost three weeks. Game five would be a rematch of the CJ-CC bout that looked like a blowout win for the Rangers until the 8th inning in game one. Game six would reprise the Colby Lewis-Phil Hughes rout in Texas. And if there is a game seven, this month’s version of Cliff Lee looks like the best game seven weapon since Bob Gibson.
But wait a minute. Bob Gibson lost game seven in ’68. Pedro Martinez couldn’t hold on to a game seven lead in the ’03 ALCS. John Smoltz pitched brilliantly in game seven in the ’91 World Series, but couldn’t come away with a win. Better pitchers than Cliff Lee have given up runs, and Cliff Lee will give up runs again. That’s the nature of baseball. Pitchers don’t face pitchers; they face hitters. Sure, AJ Burnett may struggle with the strike zone and further tax the New York bullpen that blew up in the 9th inning last night. But Tommy Hunter may not be able to navigate the still-treacherous Yankee lineup the way his teammates have. CJ Wilson may not have the magic he had for seven innings last week. Phil Hughes may get the run support that made him look like a better pitcher than Colby Lewis for much of this season. And if one blooper falls in the wrong place, or one throw gets away from an infielder, even Cliff Lee could wind up losing a game seven.
All other things equal, a team with a 2-1 edge in a best-of-seven series has a 62.5% chance of winning the series. All other things may not be equal, with the Rangers’ starting pitching looking far better than New York’s and the Rangers bats looking more alive, but all those things can change in a hurry, as we saw in the 8th inning of game one. If I had some money to put on this series, and someone gave me 5-3 odds against the Yankees winning three of the next four (and I didn’t feel ethically conflicted about betting for the Yankees), I’d be pretty tempted to take that bet. Let’s hope Josh Hamilton can turn on an AJ Burnett fastball in the first inning tonight and make me look foolish. Until then, I’ll save my recognition and celebration of the Yankees’ demise for the last out of Texas’s fourth win.