It has been three years since the Diamondbacks and the Yankees last met, but the memories are just as vivid now. Randy coming out of the bullpen, a bloop single by Gonzo, and a World Series championship. When the Yanks come to town Tuesday things will look very differently. Between the two teams only ten players were on the World Series rosters in 2001, but that hardly matters to D’back fans eager and willing to see the D’Backs beat the Yankees again.
The Diamondbacks have had a great start to interleague play, going to Baltimore and Toronto and taking both series, but no matter what the players and coaches tell you, this is the most important intergleague series the D’Backs will play. The Yankees, the top team in the AL East, come in with a Top 5 team ranking in five different offensive categories (Home Runs, Runs Scored, Walks, On Base Percentage, and OPS) and pose a true test to the D’Backs pitching staff, especially since Randy Johnson will not start in the three game set.
Game one on Tuesday pits Brandon Webb against Jose Contreras, and both pitchers are coming off their best starts of the season. Webb threw only five innings against Baltimore last Thursday, but he gave up only four hits and one run, and against that imposing Yankee lineup he’ll need a similar performance. Contreras likewise opened eyes going seven strong innings on the 10th against Colorado, a game in which he allowed only four runs. Both starters have had shaky seasons so far (Contreras sports a 6.75 ERA and is averaging only four innings a start) but Webb has shown a little better command, particularly at home where his ERA drops from 4.18 overall to 3.56 at the BOB.
As for the Yankees offense struggling without a DH, don’t count on it. The DH slot has been passed off all season as the Yanks have battled injuries, and Bernie Williams will start in CF, so the bigger question will be can the pitchers contribute with the bats. Of the Yankees starters, only Jon Lieber, who won’t pitch in the series, and Kevin Brown, who’s out with a strained groin, have had a sizeable number of at bats.
In game two the D’Backs catch a break. Instead of Brown they’ll get youngster Tanyon Sturtz, who’s making his first start of the young season. Sturtz has been fantastic lately out of the bullpen (a .193 ERA in his last 10+ innings) but his mound opponent, Casey Fossum, finally showed some of the promise that the D’Backs have been hoping for since they aquired him from Boston. Against the Orioles last week Fossum didn’t allow a run in his six innings and picked up his first win of the 2004 season. The Yankees could be vulnerable against left handed pitching if Fossum can neutralize lefty Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams, who switch-hits, but has always been a better left handed hitter.
In game three we’ll find out if Snakes like the taste of Moose, as the Yankees will send Mike Mussina to the hill. Mussina has been on fire recently, winning his last six decisions, but is coming off a start in which he was forced to leave after only three innings. Like Brown, there was a tweak in Mussina’s groin area, but unlike Brown the Yankees are confident Mussina is ready to go. If he and his deadly knuckle-curve on working it could be a long night for D’Back bats.
The Diamondbacks will send Steve Sparks to the hill. Sparks inconsistency has been a hot topic lately, and his 0-3 record, and 5.20 ERA at home could be a sign that the knuckler just moves more in open air stadiums. Llike Webb and Fossum before him Sparks is coming off his best outing this season, a stellar 7.2 inning game in which he scattered eight hits and gave up only one run. If Sparks can get his knuckler to dance like it did out east in the dry Arizona heat he can frustrate Yankee hitters and he’ll need to against Mussina.
THE BOTTTOM LINE: This series will come down to Diamondback pitching. The starters absolutely must last at least six innings, and the bullpen will have to come ready. The Yankees have won 16 of their last 19 games, and been coming back late with an alarming frequency. Note to Koplove, Randolph, Valverde and the rest of the bullpen. Keep up the good work or watch your ERA climb. The series will hinge on game one. While the Yankee bullpen has been stellar Contreras hasn’t gone deep in the game that often. If the D’Backs can get to Contreras, and force Yankee Manager Joe Torre to go to the bullpen early and often in game one, it gives the D’Backs the advantage for the rest of the series.
Part of that Yankee pen is former D’Back Bret Prinz, who has been fantastic thus far for the Pinstripers, giving up only two runs all year. Watch for Prinz to be the first guy out of the pen if Contreras gets in trouble.
Realistically the D’Backs only need to avoid a sweep to continue their strong interleague record. Game one is a toss up, but the Diamonbacks left handed lineup should be able to get to Contreras. If they put more than five runs up against the Yankee starter, they’ll win this one, because Webb looks like he’s putting it together. Game two is the must win, Fossum has come around and Sturtze is making his first start of the season. The D’Backs should get that one, and will need to because Game three is going to the Yankees. Mussina has been fantastic, and unless the groin acts up again, there’s no reason to believe his knuckle-curve won’t beat Sparks’ knuckle-ball.
The D’Backs can take two of three, but probably won’t, getting just one game in this series, but the rotation sets up nicely for a sweep of their next series with Tampa Bay. If they do that they’ll be 8-4 against the AL East, with only the Tigers left on the interleague schedule.