The Devil’s Advocate – Playoff Edition: Homeward Bound

Prior to Tuesday, the Yankees had started out the postseason with a win just four times under Joe Torre. The only two times they followed that Game 1 win up with another in Game 2, they also followed it up with the clincher in Game 3, sweeping the Rangers in both 1998 and 1999. The other two times, the Yankees went home early — the only two times they’ve failed to advance to the ALCS.

Wow, that’s a whole bunch of meaningless. Four series? That’s not even a large enough sample to draw a bad conclusion from. And yet you’re certain to hear about it again from someone else before tomorrow’s game for this simple fact: The last time it happened, it was to the Angels in 2002.

Well, here is a list of things that are the same this year as in 2002: The same franchises are playing each other in this round, the Yankees won the first game and lost the second, and a combined total of eight position players from the two teams are still starting. The similarities end there.

The Yankees that year had better starting pitching and a deeper bullpen, but this year’s pitchers have been more effective so far in this series. The 2002 Yankees featured two great hitters — Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams — a bunch of good hitters, and Raul Mondesi. This year’s team has four great hitters — Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, and Alex Rodriguez — a couple of good hitters, and then veteran filler. That year’s team was more effective at scoring runs in the first two games.

In 2002 the Angels had Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, and Garret Anderson having good years. Brad Fullmer, Scott Spiezio, David Eckstein, and Adam Kennedy all hit average or better for their positions. This year’s team has Vladimir Guerrero.

In the 2002 ALDS the Angels combined for a batting average of .376 and an OPS of 1.030. In other words, they hit like a team of Alex Rodriguezes, while the Yankees merely hit like Derek Jeters. This year, through the first two games, both teams are hitting like Tony Womack — the Angels like the 2005 version.

Anaheim’s starting pitching is far better this year than in their championship year, but their defense is worse, particularly in the outfield. They replaced Darin Erstad in center field with Steve Finley, the only man who makes Bernie Williams look okay in center.

So this series is completely different than that one. Even the way the games were decided has been different: The Yankees came from behind early in the first two games in 2002, blowing the second one in the eighth. This year they’ve yet to come from behind, having scored their first six runs before the Angels had put anything on the board. In 2002, the Angels split the first two in New York and took the series home to finish off. This year, the Yankees split in Anaheim, and now are coming home.

Home, where they’ve hit a combined .290 this season with an .846 OPS, while their opponent’s OPS has dropped 26 points. Five regulars have an OPS over .900 at home this year, and Alex Rodriguez hit 26 home runs there. Game 3 starter Randy Johnson has a 3.13 ERA at Yankee Stadium this season and has averaged seven innings a start, while Game 4 starter Shawn Chacon’s ERA has been 2.68 there this season.

This is not the same as 2002. This series won’t be decided by four games three years ago, but rather three games this weekend. The Yankees have a huge edge right now, despite their loss Wednesday night. And that’s why Friday’s game is so vital for them. With all the advantages, if they somehow lose with Randy Johnson on the mound they’ll be facing elimination without their ace pitcher still in the hole, and they’ll have to go back to Anaheim if they want to win.

Fortunately, Game 3 has been Joe Torre’s money game: The Yankees are 8-1 in the third game of an ALDS series during his tenure. The one loss? You guessed it: The 2002 Angels.

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