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Yankees Preview: August 6-12

What lies ahead as the Bombers hit the road again
08/06/2007 11:44 AM ET
By Jonah Keri / Special to YESNetwork.com

Matsui's resurgence has powered the Yanks' rise.(AP)
Yankees at Blue Jays

Game 1: Andy Pettitte vs. Jesse Litsch
Game 2: Roger Clemens vs. Josh Towers
Game 3: Chien-Ming Wang vs. Roy Halladay

So Long Easy Street: Sunday's 8-5 win completed a three-game sweep over the Royals. It also signaled the end of a 25-game stretch in which the Yankees played only teams under .500. Not surprisingly, the Bombers feasted on what's probably the easiest 25-game schedule any team has seen this season, going 19-6. The question is: Are the Yankees as good as they've looked over those past 25 games, or are they more a product of that weak competition.

We're about to find out. The Yanks will play 20 of their next 23 games against above-.500 teams, starting with a three-game set in Toronto. The Jays were below .500 when the Yankees played them last month, but are now two games above break-even, riding a three-game win streak of their own after sweeping the lowly Rangers. Long an offensive-minded team, the Jays have climbed to within five games of the Wild Card lead largely on the strength of an improved pitching staff, one that ranks 4th in the AL in ERA. Right-handers Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum have emerged as two of the best young pitchers in the league, giving the Jays one of the best trios in the game alongside staff ace Roy Halladay.

No study of pitching can ever be complete with equal attention devoted to defense. In this case, defensive numbers speak volumes: The Jays rank 4th in MLB and 2nd in the AL in Defensive Efficiency -- which measures the frequency with which a team catches balls hit in play. Newly installed everyday shortstop John McDonald has been a vacuum cleaner at shortstop, bumping Royce Clayton off the roster and providing a big lift to Halladay, McGowan, Josh Towers and Jesse Litsch, four of the Jays' five starters, all with above-average ground ball-to-fly ball ratios. McDonald's double-play partner Aaron Hill has also been a plus with the glove. Meanwhile, Jeremy Accardo has been a big plus in the bullpen. Stepping in to replace injured closer B.J. Ryan, Accardo has racked up 20 saves, striking out nearly a batter an inning, with a 2.53 ERA. The Yankees likely won't come close to putting up 31 runs against the Jays' strong pitching and defense, as they did over the weekend against the Royals.

Repeat Offender: In 2006, Alex Rios enjoyed a breakout season, hitting .302 AVG/.349 OBP/.516 SLG. Rios has posted a nearly identical line this season, at .300/.357/.527. The biggest difference? Last year, Rios' 865 OPS ranked 5th among Blue Jays regulars, behind Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Reed Johnson and Troy Glaus. This year, Rios leads the team with his 884 OPS; injuries to Overbay and Johnson and a big down year for Wells have limited the team's offense.

Series Prediction: Halladay outduels Wang in Game 3, but favorable matchups against the Jays' #4 and #5 starters add up to a series win, two out of three.

Yankees at Indians

Game 1: Philip Hughes vs. Fausto Carmona
Game 2: Mike Mussina vs. Paul Byrd
Game 3: Andy Pettitte vs. Jake Westbrook

He's Baaaack!: We all know how the first chapter of the Phil Hughes story goes: Wunderkind rookie, starts off hot in his first taste of the big leagues, gets knocked out of a 7th inning no-hitter due to a serious hamstring injury, leaving the Yankees' rotation with two big holes. Hughes' return to the rotation Saturday was anything but triumphant. The 21-year-old got rocked for six runs in 4 2/3 innings, avoiding the loss by dint of the Yankees' offensive assault.

But this is a different Yankees team than the one we saw May 1, when Hughes went down to injury. We've been pointing out the Yankees' strong runs scored vs. runs allowed totals all season, saying that the team's record would eventually catch up to its talent. But the addition of Roger Clemens and the twin revivals of Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui have given the team a big boost. Even after accounting for the Bombers' soft schedule of the past four weeks, there's no denying that this team is playing its best baseball of the season. That means a lot less pressure for Hughes, who now merely needs to be an adequate 5th starter, able to pitch into the 7th inning before turning the ball over to the non-Farnsworth part of the bullpen.

Crawl to the Top: Indians fans have to be happy to see Cleveland in first place entering the first week of the post-trade deadline home stretch. They're probably less pleased about the way the Tribe got there. The Indians have dropped six of their past eight games, nine of their past 13. But the Tigers, who held first place until last week, have lost five in a row, nine of their past 10 and 11 of their past 13.

Assuming they can hold off the Twins (no sure thing with Minnesota now within 4 1/2 games of the lead in the AL Central), either the Indians or Tigers will punch a ticket to the postseason. But the two teams' recent losing ways, combined with the Yankees' big run, have left the Yankees just a half-game behind Wild Card-leading Detroit, and just one game behind Cleveland. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is always a lot of fun. But overcoming Boston's seven-game lead in the East remains a long shot. On the other hand, this weekend's series against the Indians will be one of the biggest of the season, as New York tries to shoot down one of its top rivals for the Wild Card.

Yankees fans, forget your anti-Manny and Schilling slogans. Break out the Hafner hating and Sabathia slamming.

Series Prediction: The Indians rank 7th in the AL with a 4.36 ERA; the Yankees are 8th at 4.37. The Yankees lead the AL with 652 runs scored; the Indians are 3rd with 570. Both teams have the look of playoff contenders, but count their bullpens as Achilles heels. In a match-up that might otherwise be close to call, the Yanks catch another pitching-related break, missing Indians ace and Cy Young candidate C.C. Sabathia. That tilts the scale toward the Bombers, who take two out of three.

Jonah Keri is a contributor to YESNetwork.com. He writes the weekly "Keri the 10" column for ESPN.com's Page 2. He's also the editor and co-author of the new paperback edition of Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. Email your questions and comments to jonahkeri@gmail.com.
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