The 2011 Yankees were expected to sneak into the playoffs through the Wild Card door. Boston made all the right offseason moves, while New York was spurned by Cliff Lee and turned to retreads Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and Russell Martin to round out their roster.
While not what they hoped it would be, the Yankees’ roster was still loaded, with CC Sabathia heading up the rotation, Mariano Rivera anchoring a strong bullpen, and Robinson Cano leading a star-studded offense. If they were to contend for the division, it seemed, Phil Hughes would have to build on last season’s success, Mark Teixeira would have to reverse the trend that had seen his OPS drop for three straight years, and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would have to fend off the demons of age for one more year.
Expectations don’t always become reality. Hughes was awful in April, hit the DL for the summer, and wasn’t much better in September. Cano struggled to get on base much of the year, and despite a strong finish, couldn’t recreate his 2010 numbers offensively or defensively. Teixeira kept abusing the short porch in right field, but didn’t do much when he wasn’t hitting homers. Rodriguez was excellent when he played, but rode the pine enough to make Eduardo Nunez a fixture in pinstripes. Jeter was abysmal until July, when he found his singles stroke, but never did much more.
With all these players playing below expectations, how did the Yankees finish with 97 wins and a division title? Curtis Granderson, mostly. Granderson learned how to hit lefties, made the most of the short fence in right, and found the confidence to hit well everywhere he played, hitting 41 home runs and building an MVP case.
It wasn’t just Granderson, of course. Ivan Nova pitched adequately into July, hit the minors for a stretch, and came back strong, winning 16 games and establishing himself as the team’s second best pitcher. Behind Sabathia and Nova, Colon and Garcia were surprisingly effective, and David Robertson had a season for the ages setting up for the ageless Rivera. Add excellent outfield defense from Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher and you’ve got a title contender, even with minimal contributions from Hughes and Rodriguez.
New York’s Division Series opponent, the Tigers, took advantage of a weak AL Central to cruise into the playoffs. They added Doug Fister at the trade deadline, got surprising contributions from Alex Avila and Sic Peralta, and went from postseason filler to a title contender over the course of a summer.
The hype surrounding Detroit revolved around Verlander. If they got two starts from him in a short series, the narrative went, Miguel Cabrera could mash a few homers, Fister might win his start, and they could steal a series or two.
Again, expectations don’t always become reality. Game 1 was postponed after one inning from Verlander, meaning he wouldn’t get two full starts. Fister was roughed up in the Saturday portion of Game 1, and the Tigers were in a hole.
Enter Max Scherzer, who no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning if Game 2. Then Verlander gave up two runs in the first inning of Game 3 and things looked dicey again. But the offense took over, keyed by Delmon Young’s second homer of the series, and the Tigers find themselves one AJ Burnett meltdown away from the ALCS.
Now we all expect Burnett to get shelled tonight. We may also expect New York’s offense to break out against Rick Porcello. The way expectations are playing it for these two teams, maybe the Yankees will win a 1-0 game tonight.
And then Nova will get rocked on Thursday.