The New York Yankees begin their quest for a 28th World Series title on Sunday when they open the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
Even though the Yankees finished with the best record in the American League at 94-68, under the new format they will play the first two games of this best-of-five series on the road and will cap the set with three games in the Bronx if needed.
Of course, New York is quite familiar with this Orioles team that is back in the postseason for the first time since 1997. New York split 18 meetings with Baltimore and battled for a division title with it all through September before finally securing the crown on the final day of the regular season.
New York had been in first place since June 11, but thanks to the pesky Orioles, needed all 162 games to nail down its 12th AL East crown in the last 15 years with a three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox, coupled with Baltimore losing two of three to the Tampa Bay Rays.
It's no secret that New York is driven by its offense, an attack that this year belted a major league-high 245 home runs. Leading the charge is All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who may be the hottest hitter in baseball entering the playoffs.
Over his last nine games Cano is hitting .615 with three HRs, 14 RBI and seven doubles. He ended the year hitting .313 with 33 home runs, 94 RBI and 105 runs scored. His torrid stretch may continue, as he is a .338 hitter against the Orioles with 24 home runs and 89 RBI in 135 games.
Cano isn't the only superstar in the Yankees' lineup, as Derek Jeter led the majors with 216 hits, Curtis Granderson belted 43 home runs and Nick Swisher also had a productive season. Not to mention first baseman Mark Teixeira appears healthy after missing most of September with a calf injury.
Ichiro Suzuki has also fit the Yankees' lineup like a glove since being acquired from Seattle on Aug. 3. In 67 games with the Yankees, Ichiro batted .322 - 61 points higher than he hit in 95 games with the Mariners - with five home runs, 27 RBI, 28 runs scored and stole 14 bases.
Then, there is Alex Rodriguez. The three-time AL MVP missed a few months with a broken wrist, but had one the least productive seasons of his career, hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBI.
Plus he hasn't homered since Sept. 14. And of course, the postseason hasn't been kind to A-Rod, who is just 6-for-39 in his last two series with 10 strikeouts.
CC Sabathia will get the call for the Yankees in Game 1 following a down year by his standards, as Sabathia endured two stints on the disabled list and ended the season 15-6 with a 3.38 ERA.
Lefty Andy Pettitte came out of retirement and was pitching well up until a line drive broke his leg back on June 27. Pettitte returned in September and gave up just three runs in three starts and ended the year 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA.
The playoffs are where Pettitte shines, though, as he owns a major league record 19 postseason wins.
Hiroki Kuroda (16-11, 3.32) enjoyed a terrific first season in the Bronx and will likely get the nod in Game 3, while right-hander Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23) will go in Game 4 if needed.
Rafael Soriano gave the Yankees everything they could have hoped for in the wake of Mariano Rivera's season-ending ACL injury in May. Soriano saved 42 games and pitched to a 2.26, but has nowhere near the air of invincibility as Rivera, especially come playoff time, where the all-time saves leader was close to automatic.
Righties David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain will serve as the main bridges to Soriano, while Boone Logan and Clay Rapada will be called upon to get lefties out.
As good as the Yankees bullpen is, it pales in comparison to that of Baltimore's, which is spearheaded by closer Jim Johnson, who led the majors with team-record 51 saves. He actually had 10 less strikeouts than he had saves.
Sidewinding Darren O'Day serves as his main setup guy and gives right-handed hitters fits. Lefty Brian Matusz may have found a home in the bullpen after struggling as a starter, as Buck Showalter doesn't hesitate to use him against a lefty in a big spot.
In all, five Orioles pitched in 50 or more games this year, and all five ended with ERAs between 2.28 and 2.64. Baltimore relievers threw 60 innings from the 10th frame on, and allowed five runs, for a 0.75 ERA.
Quite simply the bullpen is the biggest reason the Orioles posted their first winning season in 15 years.
It's the reason they went 29-9 in one-run games, the best record in one-run affairs since 1900. It's the reason they've captured 16 consecutive extra- inning wins, the longest streak since the 1949 Cleveland Indians won 17 in a row. And the reason they were 74-0 when holding a lead after seven innings.
It all added up to a 93-69 finish, the team's first winning record since 1997.
If you can name three Orioles starting pitchers, you are probably in the minority. Chris Tillman emerged as the team's ace down the stretch and went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA. After a solid first half, Taiwanese product Wei-Yin Chen struggled and closed the year by losing his last four decisions spanning seven starts.
The group could get a lift in this series, though, with the return of right-hander Jason Hammel, who has missed most of the second half with a knee injury. Hammel, though, was the Orioles' top pitcher in the first half of the season and won eight of his first 10 decisions
"I would assume that if you would trust me to start, if I am starting, there wouldn't be a pitch count because it's a 25-man roster and you need those extra guys in the pen so you have to expect a guy to go deep for that important a game," Hammel said."I would think no pitch count until I was told otherwise."
Lefty Joe Saunders could also be a factor after giving up a run and six hits in 5 2/3 innings of the O's wild card win over the Texas Rangers.
Offensively, the young O's are led by burgeoning superstars Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. Jones hit .287 with 32 home runs, 82 RBI and 103 runs scored, while Wieters swatted 23 homers and knocked in 83 runs.
A player to watch in this series could be 20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado, who has drawn comparisons to Rodriguez and really started to come into his own down the stretch.
Chris Davis has also contributed of late and closed the regular season by homering in six of his final seven regular season games.
The Orioles and Yankees are certainly no strangers to one another and in addition to all the regular season meetings, these teams also met in the 1996 ALCS, a series won by New York, but one that was made famous by the Jeffrey Maier catch. New York won that series in six games.
As good as Baltimore's bullpen has been, New York gets the overall edge based on a decided advantage in the starting pitching department. Still, given the way these teams fought tooth and nail down the stretch, this should be a pretty entertaining series.
But, in the end New York's experience should prevail.
PREDICTION: YANKEES in FOUR