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.
"Robbie is a huge bat for us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Absolutely huge."
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.
Sabathia will also be trying to exorcise some postseason demons of his own. The big lefty has struggled in his last three playoff series and in last year's ALDS against Detroit, pitched to a 6.23 ERA in three games (2 starts).
"It's something I'll definitely think about going into tomorrow night," Sabathia said. "But it being my last couple of starts going into the offseason, of course, yeah, that's something that you think about. But it's been a whole year, I've pitched a whole season since then. I've got more things to worry about than how I pitched against Detroit last year. I'm going to take that into tomorrow night, I take the last three or four starts, five starts that I've had, and just try to build off that."
He was 0-2 in three starts against the Orioles this season, but owns a 16-4 lifetime mark against them with a 3.12 ERA in 25 starts.
"They have a great lineup, and I've faced these guys a lot, and they know what I am trying to do," Sabathia said."It's just up to me to go out and execute pitches, and you know, make sure I keep the ball down and get the ball in where I need to and go out and make pitches."
Closer 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.
It all added up to a 93-69 finish, the team's first winning record since 1997.
In Friday's wild card win over Texas, Joe Saunders tossed 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball, while Nate McLouth tallied two RBI and a run scored and the Orioles won, 5-1.
"He's had two good outings in a row, and felt like if he could get his feet on the ground, all the emotion around the ballpark, you could see the experience that he's had play out," Showalter said of Saunders.
The 31-year-old Saunders (1-0), who was 0-6 with a lofty 9.38 ERA in six career starts at Rangers Ballpark, fanned four, surrendered six hits and walked one for Baltimore, which is in the postseason for the first time since 1997.
"As a baseball player and an athlete, you always want to prove people wrong. We strive on that, and I strive on that, too," Saunders said. "No one really gave me a chance, and I wanted to go out there and prove people wrong."
Johnson left the bases loaded in the ninth.
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.
Getting the call for Baltimore in Sunday's Game 1 will be returning right- hander Jason Hammel, who was the O's best pitcher in the first half before a knee injury allowed him to make just three starts after the break.
Hammel, who hasn't pitched Sept. 11, won eight of his first 10 decisions, but ended the year 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA.
"I wasn't trying to force a hand or anything, Hammel said. "Obviously I want to be a part of this. The guys have done an outstanding job to get us to this point, and I've only pitched for half the season. That shows a lot of dedication from a lot of guys to go ahead and me put out there.
"I haven't pitched in a long time, but I'm a professional, I take care of what I need to do to get ready, and so do the other guys in that clubhouse. We're going to be ready to go."
For the season, Hammel is 0-1 in three starts against the Bronx Bombers, though he's turned in a respectable 3.94 ERA.
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 five games.