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A Yankees Prospect Makes Good In The Playoffs, And Previewing The ALCS

October 14, 2010 - John Whittaker
If I said Saturday night's Game 3 victory over Minnesota was the story of a prospect making due on his promise, you'd think I was writing about Phil Hughes, wouldn't you?

Hughes was great — but let's take a minute to talk about Marcus Thames.

Way back in 2001, Thames started turning heads with 31 homers and 97 RBI for AA Norwich. Then, he homered in his first major league at-bat in 2001 — off of Randy Johnson. It seemed big things were coming from Thames. I remember watching Thames and Juan Rivera rip line drives throughout spring training before they got sent down and telling my brother how good those two outfielders were going to be. But, after riding the shuttle between AAA and Yankee Stadium for a year, Thames was traded to Texas for Ruben Sierra, signing with Detroit after the season.

Since the trade, Thames established himself as a bonafide power hitter in the major leagues. While his batting average won't wow you, he has power to all fields and mashes lefthanders. When the Yankees had a chance to pick Thames up as a minor league free agent this offseason, I was hoping the deal would get done.

Sure enough, Thames, with a man on base on Saturday, belted a two-run home run (his first career postseason homer) to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead and put the game out of reach. As big a home run as it was, it probably wasn't his biggest homer of the year — that honor goes to the May 17 walk-off against Boston and Jonathan Papelbon. And, in a six-game stretch in late August, Thames carried the offense with 6 home runs and 11 RBI in 21 at-bats, including a game-winning two-run homer against Toronto.

It's been a nice season for Thames, and his homer on Saturday night couldn't have happend to a nicer guy.

Now, on to Hughes.

We've seen the future of the Yankees rotation — and its name is Phil Hughes (sorry for the obvious Jon Landau ripoff).

Let's not forget that he's only 24 years old and in his first full season as a major league starter, but Saturday night was the type of start you wanted to see from Hughes. He had a great fastball, locating it to either side of the plate and showing an ability to throw it with some decent sink when he needed to. Knowing the Twins wanted to get off to a fast start in Game 3, Hughes stepped on their throat early and never let them get into the game offensively.

It was a vintage power-pitcher performance — Clemens-esque, dare I say it. It's amazing the change we've seen in Hughes once he realized how good he really is. When he came up to the majors, you could tell he didn't trust his stuff. He nibbled around the strike zone and refused to attack people. Now, he's throwing gas by hitters. Easily 70 percent of his pitches were fastballs — and this came on a night when he really had trouble throwing his curveball for strikes. Even though they put runners on base, the Twins were never able to get a big hit against Hughes.

I know it was a Game 3 start, but that was an ace performance if I ever saw one.

Enough looking back at Game 3. Let's take a look at the Rangers and how the Yankees stack up.

Yankees Offense vs. Texas' pitching.

Did you know Cliff Lee pitches for the Rangers? Sorry, but as a writer, I'm under contract to make you aware that Cliff Lee is a Ranger.

Statistically, the Yankees didn't fare too badly against Texas pitching this year. Derek Jeter hit .385 against the Rangers and reached base 45 percent of the time in six games. Also worth noting is Alex Rodriguez' .360 batting average and .720 slugging percentage. For some reason, A-Rod just loves hitting in Texas, too. Marcus Thames, who should see a lot of action in the Cliff Lee-C.J. Wilson games this series, hit .435 in 23 at-bats against Texas this season, while Brett Gardner hit .333 and stole five bases. On the downside, Robinson Cano was a .233 hitter against the Rangers this season, while Nick Swisher hit .133 against Texas with Mark Teixeira chipping in with a .167 batting average against the Rangers. Perhaps most troubling, Curtis Granderson, who has been one of the Yankees hottest bats lately, hit only .200 with one extra-base hit in 20 at-bats against Texas.

Because of the whole Cliff Lee factor, it will be important for the Yankees to get off to a good start in this series. On the plus side, they face C.J. Wilson in Game 1, and the Yankees put up nine runs in 14.2 innings this year against Wilson. They'll want to carry that momentum into the postseason. Tommy Hunter and Cliff Lee each threw pretty well against the Yankees this year, with Lee notching a win, 16 strikeouts and 5 runs allowed in 14.1 innings. Hunter backed that up with one appearance in which he threw 5 innings, allowed 2 runs and struck out 8. Colby Lewis, who will pitch Game 2 against Phil Hughes, didn't pitch against the Yankees this year. In fact, during his career, he's only faced four hitters on the Yankees roster, though Derek Jeter has two home runs against Lewis in his career. Lewis is a fastball/slider pitcher who maxes out in the low 90s and discovered a nasty curveball as well as a cut fastball while pitching in Japan. He led the Rangers in strikeouts with 196 this season while posting a 3.72 ERA.

Again, I see the first two games being the key given the Yankees history against Wilson. If they can jump out to a 2-0 lead, then Cliff Lee in Game 3 takes on a little less importance. I also love that Andy Pettitte is matched against Lee. If any Yankees pitcher won't be nervous going against the immortal Cliff Lee, it's Pettitte. While Hunter was good against the Yanks this year, he had a rough August and didn't pitch that well against Tampa Bay last week (3 runs in 4 innings). With their season potentially on the line, you know Ron Washington will have the rookie on a short leash.

Yankees Pitching vs. Texas' hitting.

Yankees pitching handled the Rangers offense fairly well this year. Andy Pettitte allowed only 2 runs in eight innings in his only start against Texas. Phil Hughes threw a scoreless inning of relief while C.C. Sabathia allowed 3 runs in six innings against Texas this year.

Now, here's the part that will make Yankees fans cry — or at least not want to watch Game 4 of this series. A.J. Burnett threw a simulated game Wednesday in which he hit two hitters. So, in a game during which the hitters are just standing in the box, thinking about the alignment of the planets, A.J. Burnett's control was so bad that he hit two hitters who weren't swinging at his pitches. Here's the good news — A.J. was great against the Rangers during the regular season. In three starts, he threw 18 innings, allowing only 5 earned runs while striking out 17. Even more impressive, he only allowed 1 home run. Maybe I'll watch Game 4 now.

The rest of the pitching was also pretty good against Texas, except for Mariano Rivera, who blew a couple of saves late in the season. Kerry Wood, Boone Logan and David Robertson all threw well against the Rangers, allowing a combined 1 run in 8.2 innings.

The one caveat I have is this. The Rangers are a great fastball hitting team. Phil Hughes will have to show better control of his curveball and changeup early in Game 2, or the Rangers will give him trouble. You don't want to be in the position of having to throw Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton or Nelson Cruz a fastball when you're behind in the count. It's a prescription for whiplash and an early exit from the game. Hughes will have to be better with his secondary pitches than he was against Minnesota, who just couldn't catch up with the kid's fastball.

The rest of the Yankees will also have to be careful with Young, who continued to wear out Yankees pitching with a .306 average this year, and Kinsler, who hit .400 in three games against the Yanks. Other than those two guys, regulars in the Rangers lineup didn't do much against the Yanks. Nelson Cruz did hit 3 home runs against the Yankees, but hit only .250, while Vladimir Guerrero hit no home runs in 32 at bats to go with a .250 average.

Given that it's the postseason, I'd be shocked if Young and Kinsler got much to hit. You don't want them to beat you if you can have success with Hamilton, Guerrero and Cruz. The Yankees have an obvious gameplan for Guerrero that they've executed pretty well in past years - namely, get ahead and then don't throw anything near the strike zone. With a two-strike count, even Javier Vazquez can get Guerrero to strike out. And, the Yanks must have a pretty good idea against Hamilton, too, because he hasn't killed them this year. Cruz could be the key for the Rangers. Obviously, you can get him out, but Yankees pitchers found the fat part of his bat too many times for my liking this year.

My Prediction I was off by one game in the Minnesota series (what do you want - this is free content!). With Texas, I'm feeling like the Yankees win in six games. Josh Hamilton hasn't been hitting much lately, the Yankees have a pretty good idea how to pitch Vladimir Guerrero, and the bullpen is nothing if it's not rested (except for Mariano). That seems to add up to a rematch with Philadelphia in my book.


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