Every baseball season is a little bit different than the one before.
This year's big difference is the presence of teams like the Orioles, A's and Nationals in the playoffs while more recent powerhouses like the Red Sox, Phillies and, after Friday night, Rangers cool their heels at home. That's not the only change, however.
This is also the first season in memory when looking ahead to a playoff series finds the Yankees holding a big edge in starting pitching over their opponent. The Orioles have led a charmed life this season in large part because they have the starting pitching of a much worse team.
Give them credit for overcoming that shortcoming over the course of the regular season, but it doesn't change the fact that the Yankees will have the edge on the mound in every game of the ALDS this year. There's no more fretting about a fourth starter or A.J. Burnett or any of the other things that have been an annual exercise over the last decade.
CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda all turned in strong seasons, while Phil Hughes was right around league average. That sounds like a knock, but only if you don't remember some of the pitchers that the Yankees have been counting on in past Octobers and only if you think that Jason Hammel, Joe Saunders, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman and/or Miguel Gonzalez are much better than their performance this season indicates.
That doesn't mean this series will be a walk in the park. There's always more to it than just the way pitching matchups stack up on paper.
You've got the power of the Orioles to contend with after a season that saw them hit more home runs than any team other than the Yankees. It could be a particular problem since both stadiums are very power-friendly and the Yankee staff has been a bit more prone to the longball than you might like.
Beyond Adam Jones, though, the Orioles don't have one hitter on their team who can get hot enough to change the face of games all by themselves. Yes, Mark Reynolds destroyed the Yankees last month (seven homers in seven games from Aug. 31 - Sep. 9) but he also barely hit after that series and he epitomizes a lineup that can crush a mistake without scaring you in any other way.
The Yankees, on the other hand, counter with a lineup that features several players capable of bending games to their will, Robinson Cano leads that list, as well as depth that only got scarier when Ichiro Suzuki dipped into the fountain of youth upon his arrival in the Bronx. If A-Rod, Mark Teixeira or Nick Swisher decides to show up, the Yankees are going to wear out the Oriole starters every night.
That leads to the relief corps, an unquestioned strength for the Orioles this season, especially closer Jim Johnson, that isn't significantly better than what the Yankees can roll out there. While some might rightly question whether Rafael Soriano can be Mariano Rivera's playoff equal, there's no doubt that he made it hard to consider Rivera a significant loss over the course of the regular season.
Add David Robertson, Boone Logan's ability to retire lefties, a resurgent Joba Chamberlain and Derek Lowe's experience and durability to Soriano and you're left with an Orioles advantage that is slight at best. On paper, this doesn't look like much of a matchup.
Baltimore's presence in this series is a pretty clear sign that they don't play these games on paper, though. It's impossible to quantify intangibles, obviously, but the Orioles would have to have one of the higher scores in baseball history this season.
Nothing about their ability to win 93 games or advance to the ALDS makes rational sense, which serves to make them a scarier opponent because it feels like there's some unseen hand guiding them around disaster. In this series, the prospect of Buck Showalter getting personal revenge while the Orioles finally exorcise the ghost of Jeffrey Maier makes the mystics among us start to wonder if the Yankees' clear talent advantage matters at all.
Reason wins out over mojo before games start, though, and the Yankees should be able to find a way to three wins based on the fact that they have most of the best players in this series on their roster. Stranger things have happened, to be sure, but this should just be the start of the Yankees' playoff run as opposed to its bitter end.