Yankees face two tough tests in Texas, Tigers

Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers rounds second Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers rounds second base after his first inning home run against the Detroit Tigers. (April 21, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

BOSTON

As for degree of difficulty, this weekend's trip to Fenway Park wasn't much of a test for the Yankees. It had all the white-knuckle tension of a backyard barbecue.

Spoiling Friday's 100th anniversary celebration with a five-homer barrage, including two by Eric Chavez, followed a familiar script for this ancient rivalry. But what the Yankees did to the Red Sox on Saturday felt almost criminal, a public humiliation of the highest order.

Soaking rains washed away Sunday night's chance at a sweep, which seemed inevitable with CC Sabathia looking to right himself at the expense of a dysfunctional patsy. But now playtime is over for the Yankees. This upcoming stretch represents a big step up in weight class with back-to-back series against the Rangers and Tigers, two teams that could be on a collision course for an ALCS rematch.

"I think they're important weeks because you see how you compare to other clubs," Joe Girardi said Sunday as he waited for the team's evening charter flight to Arlington. "I don't think that we've clicked on all cylinders, and I don't know if every other club has clicked on all cylinders. But it's still good to see how you match up."

The Yankees' biggest flaw at this point, 15 games into the season, is their starting rotation. They're ranked 29th overall with a 5.84 ERA, and only the Twins are worse at 6.41. Even the Red Sox are one spot ahead of the Yankees with a 5.75 ERA, and the Rangers abused their pitching staff last week in Boston.

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In fairness, Texas has flattened everyone in steamrolling its way to baseball's best record at 13-3. Stepping on the accelerator has been Josh Hamilton, who went 3-for-3 with his seventh homer Sunday in the Rangers' 3-2 win over the Tigers at Comerica Park. Hamilton is hitting .418 (28-for-67) with an OPS of 1.214 and 17 RBIs, but he's had plenty of help, too.

Mike Napoli just had a streak of five consecutive games with a home run, Ian Kinsler has a .385 on-base percentage with a team-high 16 runs and Michael Young is batting .403 (25-for-62) with 12 RBIs. The Yankees did catch one break; Adrian Beltre could miss the entire series with a strained left hamstring, the only apparent weakness for a team doing everything right.

That includes the pitching staff, ranked third in the majors with a 2.48 ERA, and a rotation that hasn't missed C.J. Wilson, who defected to the rival Angels during the offseason. The Yankees draw Derek Holland, Yu Darvish and Scott Feldman.

"I could give the Dennis Green line," Girardi said, smiling. "They are who we thought they were. Something like that, right? They're explosive offensively, speed, power, play very good defense. Their starting pitching is deep. Their bullpen is deep. They're a complete team."

The Yankees are two-thirds of the way there (we'll leave defense out of the conversation as long as Eduardo Nuñez continues to get spot starts around the infield). The Yankees are averaging 6.0 runs to the Rangers' 5.9 and have outhomered them 27-26 despite playing one fewer game. Their .367 on-base percentage leads the majors; Texas is second at .362.

The Yankees' other strength is the bullpen, whose rank slipped to second in the majors (2.14 ERA) after David Phelps' three-run outing Saturday.

The Yankees' relief corps will be crucial against the loaded Rangers, then the Tigers at home. But that's the double-whammy they face this week. If they don't get decent innings from the rotation, the bullpen eventually will weaken from overuse.

So after taking the body blows from Hamilton and Co. in Texas, the Yankees could be forced into a home run derby with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the Bronx. Those are winnable battles, but not like the walk-overs at Fenway, where the Yankees teed off on Boston's relievers as if they knew what was coming.

No, the Red Sox were the undercard for this coming week, the warm-up act. The only thing the Yankees have learned is that Boston currently is not among the American League's elite, not in April. Now they get the chance to see how close they are to the top.

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