Playoff pulse: Yankees have their swagger back

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – By their nature, the New York Yankees are an intimidating team. They flash their money like rappers, play in a stadium that oozes history and trot out five players who make more this year than the entire Florida Marlins roster.

So it was odd, then, to see the 2005 Yankees walking around with an unnerving lack of swagger, looking more like kids on the first day of school than bullies on the playground. Their body language said as much about the Yankees as their play did, and they made a quick exit from the playoffs, going without a World Series for the fifth consecutive season.

Spend any time around the Yankees these days and the dynamic is, well, dynamic. The Yankees believe in themselves, and for a far greater reason than their payroll: They are a very good baseball team, perhaps the best to wear pinstripes since the 2000 team that won the Yankees' fourth World Series in five years.

"And the thing is, we still need everything to click right," first baseman Jason Giambi said. "We've got the potential. Then you look at the (American League) Central, and we've got Detroit and Minnesota. The White Sox won the World Series and they might not even make it. Oakland is a team people forget about, and I'm not sure why.

"This might be the strongest group of playoff teams I can remember. When you start looking at the pitching, the hitting – whoever comes from the AL is going to be very strong."

The prohibitive favorite is New York, and mainly because its lineup is the type that can lay waste to even the best pitching staffs. Put it this way: Second baseman Robinson Cano, who with a few more at-bats would be in the thick of the batting-title race with his .336 average, will bat between seventh and ninth once the Yankees are at full health.

"When I was in Oakland, we would look at the (Yankees') lineup and cringe," Giambi said. "I can't imagine what teams do when they see ours today.

"Johnny Damon gets on base. Derek Jeter gets a hit. Bobby Abreu takes a walk. Myself. Alex (Rodriguez). Now you add Hideki (Matsui). And Melky Cabrera, or even Gary Sheffield. Then you start adding Robinson Cano, and then Jorge Posada?

"Is that fair?"

Well … no.

The Yankees have power (185 home runs, sixth in the big leagues), speed (125 stolen bases, third) and patience (.364 on-base percentage, first). Their pitching, by no means dominant, is serviceable, and it looks better in the playoffs, when they can rely on Chien-Ming Wang, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and a bullpen that looks much better with Brian Bruney keeping Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth fresh(er).

Mariano Rivera is scheduled to pitch this week, and assuming all goes well – a risky assumption, seeing what happened to Francisco Liriano and noting Pedro Martinez's struggles – the Yankees will steamroller into October with their best lineup of Joe Torre's tenure as manager and their indispensable closer.

"What do we have, 90 wins?" Giambi said. "We've still got 60 losses. And that's what you have to remember. No matter how good we look now, this is still baseball, and nobody knows what can happen."

Three up

Minnesota Twins: Creeping ever closer to first-place Detroit – and further from wild-card runner-up Chicago – the Twins sloughed off the loss of Francisco Liriano like it was a piece of dead skin. Torii Hunter mashed three home runs this week, Rondell White hit .400 and the Twins outscored their opponents 39-21. Better yet, Carlos Silva pitched well in two starts, Scott Baker looked great Sunday and Boof Bonser was solid yet again. Oh, and they've got some other guy. Johan Santana, right?

Albert Pujols, St. Louis: For the first time in his career, Pujols is not going to finish with 590, 591 or 592 at-bats. During his first five seasons, he somehow stayed in that three-at-bat range. And while that fact may seem like minutiae, it is rather telling that despite an at-bat total projected around 520, Pujols is going to put up almost identical power numbers to years past. Two more home runs and he'll set a career high with 47. Eight more RBI and he'll break his personal best of 130 from his rookie year. The National League MVP vote might not be so clear cut after all.

Philadelphia Phillies: In its last 17 1/3 innings, the Philadelphia bullpen has allowed one run. Since Tom Gordon's return, the Phillies' bullpen has turned from a liability into a strength, with Gordon, Rick White, Eude Brito, Ryan Madson, Aaron Fultz and Matt Smith all throwing scoreless innings within the last week. Mix in the starting pitching – Cole Hamels' flirtation with a no-hitter, Jon Lieber's corner hunting and Brett Myers' pure power – and the Phillies are now the one team outside the NL West with a good shot at the wild card. That, and they've got Ryan Howard.

Three down

Los Angeles Dodgers: Even if medicine does come to town in the form of Pittsburgh and Arizona starting Tuesday, the Dodgers are suffering a crisis of confidence. Namely, they can't hit their way out of a paper bag (this week, Russell Martin, Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton, Wilson Betemit, J.D. Drew and Andre Ethier were a combined 18 for 101) and their relievers can't pitch out of one (Brett Tomko, Tim Hamulack and Eric Stults' combined ERA: 33.75, or 15 runs in four innings). Big game tonight between Dodgers ace Brad Penny and the No. 1 starter of the team Los Angeles is now chasing, San Diego's Jake Peavy.

Brad Lidge, Houston: The erstwhile Houston closer allowed five baserunners this week, and all of them scored. In between adding his kerosene, Lidge managed all of two outs. It was another ignominious week in a season full of them, and it furthered doubt about Lidge's future after giving up the Mars-bound home run Pujols hit in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series last season. Despite striking out 94 in 65 2/3 innings, Lidge is giving up almost a hit per – unheard of for someone with a fastball-slider combination of his caliber – and is 1-5 with a 5.62 ERA.

Detroit Tigers: Again. And it's not so much that the Tigers are playing terribly. They won three of five games this week. There seems no sense of urgency, however, from the Tigers, whose AL Central lead has been frittered to one and might be without Placido Polanco for the remainder of the season. Yes, Joel Zumaya came back Sunday and hit 102 mph, so all seems well with him. And, yes, the Tigers do still hold a five-game advantage over the White Sox in the wild card race, so their playoff hopes aren't in any immediate danger. Limping into the playoff just doesn't seem healthy.

Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week

Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times

Though the requisite rip from T.J. Simers is a given, he hasn't flamed the Dodgers in more than a week. Plaschke, his partner in newsprint, assumed that responsibility after the Dodgers dropped out of first place, which, to Plaschke, seemed even sillier than the Dodgers' lineup Sunday.

All you need to know about the current state of the Dodgers' offense is the identity of their No. 3 hitter in their most important game of the season.

Yeah, on Sunday it was Julio Lugo, who began the game batting .233 as a Dodger with only seven RBIs in 116 at-bats.

He went hitless Sunday, striking out to strand two runners in the seventh inning after the Padres had intentionally walked Kenny Lofton – yeah, that Kenny Lofton – to pitch to him.

Is it any wonder the Padres, with 13 wins in 17 games against the Dodgers this year, can't wait for the series finale today?

Matchup of the Week

Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox

At this point, it seems only a sweep of this series will keep the White Sox afloat. They're four games back of the wild card and five back of Detroit with 12 to go, and even though the Sox finish the regular season in Minnesota, they must narrow the gap by at least one game before that series to ensure it means anything.

In the first game, the Tigers start Kenny Rogers, who has given up three earned runs against the White Sox in 27 innings this year. After that comes Justin Verlander, who the White Sox torched the first three times around before he solved them in a 7-1 win Aug. 21. And finally it’s Jeremy Bonderman, whose inconsistency has hurt the Tigers in the second half, facing Jon Garland, who since June 13 has the most wins in the big leagues (13), one of the best ERAs (3.01) and serious ground ball prowess (he has allowed just five home runs in 113 2/3 innings).

Which is good, considering the White Sox's offense has disappeared. In their last six games, Chicago has scored 25 runs. The White Sox have struck out 44 times in 203 at-bats over that span, hit only three home runs and don't have a single player on the roster with more than 10 total bases.

Translation: It's been ugly. And it might get worse.

Number crunching

Lineup inefficiencies can be absolutely maddening to watch. So, before the season, blogger Ken Arneson applied the pieces of the Oakland Athletics' projected lineup to a formula created by Cyril Morong on how to best construct a lineup.

Using on-base percentage and slugging percentage applied to an analysis of all the runs scored in baseball over a three-year period, Morong's lineup analysis tools have been simplified for practical use at Baseball Musings. Though the patterns are fairly obvious – put the hitter with the highest on-base percentage at No. 1, the best slugger at No. 2 and the worst hitter at No. 9 – it is nonetheless interesting to see which lineups, of the 362,800 possible, project the most runs.

This week, we'll hit the AL playoff teams, showing their projected lineup for the playoffs, the "best lineup" as spit out at Baseball Musings, the amount of runs per game both are projected to score based on raw data and the number of runs the teams actually do score. Next week we'll show the NL.

New York Yankees

Projected lineup

1) Johnny Damon
2) Derek Jeter
3) Bobby Abreu
4) Alex Rodriguez
5) Jason Giambi
6) Gary Sheffield
7) Hideki Matsui
8) Jorge Posada
9) Robinson Cano

Best lineup

1) Bobby Abreu
2) Jason Giambi
3) Robinson Cano
4) Derek Jeter
5) Alex Rodriguez
6) Hideki Matsui
7) Jorge Posada
8) Johnny Damon
9) Gary Sheffield

Projected lineup runs per game: 6.371
Best lineup runs per game: 6.479
Real runs per game: 5.748

Minnesota Twins

Projected lineup

1) Luis Castillo
2) Nick Punto
3) Joe Mauer
4) Michael Cuddyer
5) Justin Morneau
6) Torii Hunter
7) Rondell White
8) Jason Tyner
9) Jason Bartlett

Best lineup

1) Joe Mauer
2) Justin Morneau
3) Torii Hunter
4) Jason Bartlett
5) Michael Cuddyer
6) Luis Castillo
7) Nick Punto
8) Rondell White
9) Jason Tyner

Projected lineup runs per game: 5.369
Best lineup runs per game: 5.503
Real runs per game: 4.966

Detroit Tigers

Projected lineup

1) Curtis Granderson
2) Ivan Rodriguez
3) Craig Monroe
4) Magglio Ordonez
5) Carlos Guillen
6) Marcus Thames
7) Sean Casey
8) Brandon Inge
9) Neifi Perez

Best lineup

1) Curtis Granderson
2) Carlos Guillen
3) Craig Monroe
4) Magglio Ordonez
5) Marcus Thames
6) Ivan Rodriguez
7) Sean Casey
8) Brandon Inge
9) Neifi Perez

Projected lineup runs per game: 4.681
Best lineup runs per game: 4.751
Real runs per game: 4.926

Oakland A's

Projected lineup

1) Jason Kendall
2) Mark Kotsay
3) Milton Bradley
4) Frank Thomas
5) Eric Chavez
6) Jay Payton
7) Nick Swisher
8) Mark Ellis
9) Marco Scutaro

Best lineup

1) Milton Bradley
2) Frank Thomas
3) Jay Payton
4) Nick Swisher
5) Eric Chavez
6) Mark Ellis
7) Mark Kotsay
8) Marco Scutaro
9) Jason Kendall

Projected lineup runs per game: 5.153
Best lineup runs per game: 5.256
Real runs per game: 4.714

Playoff odds report

Well, looks like the American League is just about set. The Baseball Prospectus computers are more than 95 percent certain that New York, Detroit, Oakland and Minnesota will represent the AL in the postseason after playing out the rest of the season 1 million times on its computers to generate playoff odds.

The National League, on the other hand? Maybe next week it will be a little less cloudy.

(Last week's percentages in parentheses.)

American League
New York Yankees: 100 percent (99.99 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 98.33 percent (96.97 percent)
Oakland A's: 97.42 percent (80.05 percent)
Minnesota Twins*: 95.52 percent (77.68 percent)
Chicago White Sox: 6.09 percent (24.96 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 2.58 percent (20.19 percent)

National League
New York Mets: 100 percent (100 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 99.15 percent (86.16 percent)
San Diego Padres: 80.59 percent (63.10 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 71.93 percent (82.04 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies*: 38.87 percent (14.02 percent)
San Francisco Giants: 5.55 percent (14.06 percent)
Florida Marlins: 2.30 percent (8.13 percent)

* – Wild card leader: Very interesting situation in the NL. Even though the Dodgers are deemed almost a 72 percent chance to make the playoffs, the Phillies – at only 38.87 percent – are considered the wild-card favorites. More than 41 of the Dodgers' percentage points come from the probability they will win the NL West, with only 30.3 percent from the wild card. Currently, in real life, the Dodgers lead the Phillies by one game.

Final word

"I felt like crying at the time." – Mets starter Pedro Martinez, who, from the looks of it, did shed tears, sobbing into a towel on the bench following his three-inning, four-run disappointment of a return from the disabled list.

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