All eyes on sluggers as Tigers, Yankees open ALCS
After finishing with baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967, Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera is one of the favourites to win his first MVP.
Meanwhile, three-time league MVP Alex Rodriguez will be in the New York Yankees lineup batting sixth as the AL championship series begins.
Both clubs face short turnarounds for Saturday night's series opener at Yankee Stadium, with Cabrera and Rodriguez in the spotlight for far different reasons.
These teams advanced from gruelling five-game division series thanks to two wins apiece from their respective aces, CC Sabathia of New York and reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander for Detroit.
Each pitcher went the distance to capture Game 5, with Verlander coming through in a 6-0 win at Oakland on Thursday and Sabathia in a 3-1 home victory Friday over Baltimore.
That rules out the aces for this weekend's two games in the Bronx, and the focus instead figures to be on the hitters — and Cabrera in particular.
Cabrera turned in a season for the ages with a .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs. He went 5 for 20 with one RBI in the Oakland series, and is a .179 hitter in 11 postseason games against the Yankees.
The slugger, however, has hit safely in all 13 of his LCS games, batting .360 with six homers, 13 RBIs and 14 runs scored.
"He is just a great hitter," Yankees starter Andy Pettitte said. "Obviously he doesn't have a whole lot of holes. He's got power to the opposite field, and he's got obviously pull power. So when you have got a guy like that, he's tough to get out."
Pettitte (0-1, 3.86 ERA) will start Game 1 after giving up three runs over seven-plus innings in Monday's 3-2 loss to the Orioles. Cabrera is 4 for 12 with two homers against him in regular-season play to go along with eight hitless at-bats in the 2003 World Series with Florida.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is in the news for his woes. The third baseman was benched for a playoff game Friday for the first time with New York, with manager Joe Girardi saying the star is "going through a difficult time."
The benching came after he was pinch-hit for in each of the previous two games against Baltimore. Raul Ibanez batted for Rodriguez and hit a tying homer in the ninth inning Wednesday before adding a game-winning blast in the 12th for a 3-2 victory.
Rodriguez is 2 for 16 with nine strikeouts in the postseason. He went 2 for 18 in last year's division series against Detroit, going 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in a 3-2 home loss in Game 5.
"I'm not happy and obviously disappointed," Rodriguez said before Friday's contest. "Want to be in there in the worst way."
The Tigers will start only right-handers in this series, beginning with Doug Fister (0-0, 2.57) on Saturday. That means Girardi could sit Rodriguez throughout, although the manager was non-committal after Friday's win.
Fister went 1-1 with a 6.52 ERA in two division series games against New York last year as he returns to the site where he prevailed in Game 5 by allowing one run over five innings. Rodriguez went 0 for 4 against him in that series to drop to 1 for 9 in his career.
The Tigers right-hander yielded two runs over seven innings Sunday and did not get a decision in a 5-4 home win over the A's.
Not just A-Rod
New York has many other struggling hitters besides A-Rod. Robinson Cano is 2 for 22, Nick Swisher is 2 for 18 and former Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson improved to 3 for 19 after homering in his two-hit performance Friday.
Detroit is appearing in the ALCS in consecutive years for the first time after falling to Texas last season. The Tigers won eight of 10 to close the regular season to overtake Chicago for the AL Central title before blowing a two-game lead against the A's and advancing thanks to Verlander.
"We don't want to be satisfied," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Now we're there. But we've been there before. Now we want that next step. We want eight more wins."
Cabrera was just 3 for 15 — albeit with five walks — in last year's division series, but now he's being protected by Prince Fielder, who is trying to improve a .192 career postseason average.
"Obviously you have Cabrera in there and Fielder, great hitters," Pettitte said. "Just hope you can get out there and make quality pitches."
The Yankees left-hander may be equally concerned about Delmon Young, who is 13 for 24 against him including postseason. Young had three solo homers in last year's division series.
Young will be playing his first games in New York since he was arrested there in April on a hate crime harassment charge following a fight at his hotel during which police say he yelled anti-Semitic epithets.
Pettitte is 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA in three postseason starts at the new Yankee Stadium, where he last pitched in the playoffs in the 2010 ALCS. He has never faced the Tigers there and hasn't pitched against them anywhere since 2008.
New York won six of 10 meetings in the regular season, with Granderson posting team highs of four homers and 12 RBIs. Cabrera and Fielder combined for eight homers and 18 RBIs.
Barring any weather problems, the Yankees will become the first team ever to host MLB postseason games on five straight days in Sunday's Game 2 after playing the final three at home against the Orioles.