Coming out of the All-Star break, it wasn't really clear where the Yankees stood in the American League's big picture. After they reeled off eight-straight wins, passing the A's and Twins and closing in on Boston in the Wild Card standings, it became clear; the Yankees were in the playoff hunt, something confirmed by Brian Cashman's acquisition of reinforcements for the outfield, bullpen, and catcher positions.
That winning streak was snapped in the final game of the Yankees' series in Boston and was followed by a 1-2 series loss at home against the Orioles, a let down that one could see coming a mile away. However, when the Yankees' record on that homestand fell to 1-4 after they dropped their next two games to the Angels, one began to wonder just how much fight this team had in it after all. The answer was a lot.
Given the fact that the Angels have the best record in baseball and are much better on the road than they are at home, the fact that the Yankees were able to pull out a split against them says a lot. Even more encouraging is the fact that they achieved that split with the help of a late-game comeback in the series finale that was keyed by one of Cashman's reinforcements, Xavier Nady, who hit a two-RBI double in the sixth with the Yanks trailing 5-1 and a three run homer in the seventh with the Yanks trailing 5-4. Nady has since been named AL co-player of the week (with Kansas City's Mike Aviles).
Tossing out that let-down series against the O's, the Yankees are 10-2 since the All-Star break against two division leaders (the Angels and Twins) the Wild Card leader (Boston), and a fourth team that was ahead of them in the standings entering their series (Oakland).
Now things get hard. Tonight in Texas, where temperatures are in the triple-digits, the Yankees begin a ten-game road trip against those same two division leaders and the Rangers, who trail the Yankees by four games in the Wild Card standings. The length of this series in Texas? Four games.
At the end of June, the Rangers arrived in the Bronx with the majors' best offense and worst pitching and won the first two games of a three-game set by a total score of 5-3. We're unlikely to see those sorts of low-scoring affairs this week. The Rangers, who still have the best offense and worst pitching in the majors, score more than a run per game more at home than on the road and allow more than a half a run more in the Texas heat than elsewhere. The average score of a game at the Ballpark In Arlington this year has been 6.25-6.23 Rangers.
This should be an interesting test for tonight's starter Joba Chamberlain, who has never allowed more than three runs in any of his 50 major league appearances as a starter or reliever. Joba's worst start since shedding his artificial pitch limits came against the Rangers on July 1 at the Stadium. In that game, Joba lasted just four innings, threw 91 pitches, and walked four (though he also struck out six and only allowed two runs).
That was the game that Ian Kinsler won in the ninth inning by leading off that frame with a double off Mariano Rivera with the score tied 2-2, stealing third, and scoring on a subsequent single. The return of injured catcher Gerald Laird (.314/.367/.467) and the emergence of first baseman Chris Davis (.295/.333/.656 with 11 homers in 33 games) have made the Rangers' offense more dangerous since then, but a recent quad strain has put Milton Bradley on the bench and could force him to the DL for the first time this season, thus undermining those gains.
The Rangers' pitching staff is only dangerous to the Rangers. Sidney Ponson still has the best ERA of any pitcher to make nine or more starts for the Rangers this year, even with his Yankee stats included. Of the 13 pitchers to start for the Rangers this year, six are currently on the DL, and that doesn't include Brandon McCarthy or John Rheinecker, both of whom started for the team last year but haven't thrown a regular season pitch in 2008. Given all of that, it's the faintest of praise to call Vicente Padilla, who opposes Chamberlain tonight, the Rangers' ace, but that's what he's been this year. His one DL stint (for a sore neck) coincided with the All-Star break. He leads the team in starts, innings, strikeouts, wins, starters ERA (non-Ponson division), and is the only Rangers starter to have thrown a shutout this year. Still, he has a below-average 4.52 ERA and an ugly 1.44 WHIP to go with a similarly unattractive 1.71 K/BB and 1.34 HR/9. Padilla pitched a good game against the Yankees the last time he faced them, but that was back in May 2006.
Robinson Cano, who has been nursing a sore left hand, returns to the lineup tonight, though there's been no definitive word on the availability of Mariano Rivera, who experienced some back spasms up around his shoulder blades. Yesterday's hero, Nady, switches spots in the lineup with Cano. Justin Christian, who also had a big impact in yesterday's comeback win, starts in center over Melky Cabrera (.250/.273/.313 since the break and .201/.255/.274 since June 8); Christian is 6 for 20 (.300) with a pair of doubles and a pair of walks in his six previous major league starts. Also, Jason Giambi, having hit .182/.329/.273 since July 3, has shaved off his mustache. Given the temperature in Arlington, I'd say that's good timing.
Manager: Ron Washington General Manager: Jon Daniels
Home Ballpark: Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
Who's Replaced Whom:
Gerald Laird (DL) replaced Max Ramirez (minors) on the roster and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the lineup
Travis Metcalf (minors) replaced German Duran (minors)
Matt Harrison (minors) replaced Kevin Millwood (DL)
Tommy Hunter (minors) replaced Eric Hurley (DL)
Dustin Nippert (minors) replaced Joaquin Benoit (DL)
1B - Chris Davis (L)
2B - Ian Kinsler (R)
SS - Michael Young (R)
3B - Ramon Vazquez (L)
C - Gerald Laird (R)
RF - Marlon Byrd (R)
CF - Josh Hamilton (L)
LF - David Murphy (L)
DH - Frank Catalanotto (L)
S - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C)
R - Brandon Boggs (OF)
R - Travis Metcalf (IF)
S - Milton Bradley (DH)*
R - Vicente Padilla
L - Matt Harrison
R - Tommy Hunter
R - Scott Feldman
R - Luis Mendoza
L - C.J. Wilson
L - Eddie Guardado
R - Jamey Wright
R - Frank Francisco
R - Josh Rupe
R - Warner Madrigal
R - Dustin Nippert
15-day DL: L - Hank Blalock (3B), R - Kevin Millwood, R - Eric Hurley
R - Doug Mathis, L - A.J. Murray, R - Joaquin Benoit
60-day DL: R - Brandon McCarthy, R - Jason Jennings, L - Kason Gabbard, L - John Rheinecker, R - Thomas Diamond
R - Ian Kinsler (2B)
L - Frank Catalanotto (DH)
R - Michael Young (SS)
L - Josh Hamilton (RF/CF)
R - Marlon Byrd (CF)
L - David Murphy (LF/RF)
R - Gerlad Laird (C)
L - Chris Davis (1B)
L - Ramon Vazquez (3B)