NEW YORK — After a long flight, a pre-dawn arrival and a workout that came all too soon, Derek Jeter is ready for the playoffs.
Almost. First, a good night’s sleep would be nice.
“Man, I got home at 4:30. I don’t even know what I’m saying right now,” a bleary-eyed Jeter said Thursday, a day before he and the New York Yankees face Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in an AL division series opener. “It’s not fun yet.”
It’s about to be, though. Justin Verlander vs. CC Sabathia in Game 1 is about as good as postseason matchups get.
“It’s funny. The season has kind of gone full circle,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “We started in March with Verlander and CC opening day and now the playoffs. It should be fun.”
Verlander, who went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, looms as one of the biggest first-round obstacles for the Yankees. Of course, the Yankees have an ace of their own in Sabathia, who goes against a Tigers’ lineup that carried Detroit to a 30-9 finish to the season.
The Yankees have been coasting since wrapping up the AL East. The last time these teams met — the 2006 division series Detroit took 3-1 on its way to an AL pennant — it was the Tigers who came in cold after losing their last five. This year, The Yankees finished by being swept in Tampa Bay and losing their last four.
“A whole new season starts tomorrow for everybody,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
No more setting up rotations, no more bench players starting and no more protecting key relievers — as Yankees manager Joe Girardi did by not using Mariano Rivera, David Robertson or Rafael Soriano against the Rays. No more anything but trying to make every out count.
It all starts Friday night with the tastiest of first-round pitching matchups.
“Hopefully, it’s a good one,” Sabathia said. “We’ve faced off a lot, me playing in that division for a long time. He’s had one of the best seasons for a pitcher ever, I think.”
In Game 2, it’s New York’s Ivan Nova vs. Doug Fister, with Detroit’s Max Scherzer and Freddy Garcia slated for Game 3. If there’s a fourth game, Girardi plans to bring back Sabathia on short rest. Leyland has said he won’t pitch Verlander on short rest in the first round, even if Detroit is facing elimination in Game 4.
While most of the attention has been on Verlander, a near lock for the AL Cy Young and a strong candidate to be the first starting pitcher to win the AL MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, Fister has been even better since the Tigers traded for him in July.
Fister is 7-0 with a 0.65 ERA in his last eight outings. Fister, picked up in a six-player deal with Seattle on July 30, has gone 20 innings without walking a batter.
He and Verlander are a combined 14-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 16 appearances since Aug. 16. Of course, Verlander has been doing it all year — he’s 22-2 since throwing a no-hitter against Toronto on May 7.
“There’s not really a chance to sit back and kind of let it soak in,” Verlander said. “Once the last pitch is thrown — hopefully, after we have won a World Series — I can sit down and look back and enjoy it. For right now, I’m focused on Game 1.”
The Tigers also have some pop in their lineup. While not as daunting top to bottom in the order as New York, Detroit features AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. And catcher Alex Avila has been a revelation, with 19 homers and a .295 average.
The Yankees, of course, have Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Teixeira slugging away at the heart of their order. A-Rod will hit behind Cano in the postseason, swapping their usual order from the regular season. And then there’s former Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson, who had a career year with 41 homers.
“I’ve seen his numbers, and they’re amazing,” Verlander said.
Not that it will matter Friday night, when everyone’s stats are reset to zero and what happens from then on is all that counts. It’s almost here.
“I’m not excited yet,” Jeter said. “The excitement starts tomorrow.”