Jim Leyland is smart enough to know that the reason for the pitiful performance by the Yankees hitters in the first two games of the American League Championship Series is the prized pitching by his Detroit Tigers.
And wise enough to not assume — at least publicly — that it's going to continue.
"I am nervous about this because you know the Yankees are going to break out. They are just too good," Leyland said Monday on a conference call. "Believe me, we are not feeling real comfortable yet, I can tell you."
Uh-huh. But he'll be plenty comfy for Game 3 tonight in starting potentially the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander.
"The confidence as far as when he is on the mound that we can win the game is about as high as you can get," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "I think that's the feeling all the guys have when he's on the mound. Which, you know, really it's a good feeling, to be honest with you."
Verlander, the primary competition for David Price's Cy Young bid, followed his 17-8, 2.64 regular season with a pair of dazzling Division Series starts against the A's, allowing one run over seven innings in the opener then pitching a four-hit, 11-strikeout, 122-pitch shutout in Game 5. "In the postseason, it's a hold nothing back mentality," he said.
As good as Verlander, who won the Cy Young and MVP awards last season, has been, he has found a way to turn it up.
"I think he is even better. Yes, I do, to answer the basic question," Leyland said. "I think he is better, but I think it is because of experience. When you have a talent, the combination of talent and experience like he has, that's a pretty good combination."
Part of that experience is not stirring a slumping opponent, and Verlander stayed right down the middle of the plate with his comments. "We're not taking anything for granted," he said. "We know what the Yankees are capable of."
But with four runs in the two games, a .205 team average and .603 on-base plus slugging percentage for the postseason and Derek Jeter unable to help, the Yankees haven't looked anything like themselves.
The situation isn't promising for a turnaround, with Verlander (9-2, 1.65 at home) on the hill and a 3-0 deficit looming. While acknowledging their underdog status and long odds, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said there is at least some confidence in knowing they've beaten Verlander before (winning two of his three starts this season) and, more importantly, what they're in for — the 100-mph fastball, the killer curve and tempting changeup.
"As a hitter, you want to face a familiar pitcher," he said. "Even if he happens to be the best pitcher on the planet right now and maybe the best in the last 10-15 years."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]