NEW YORK -- Congratulations, Yankees. As a reward for winning a tense, hard-fought American League Division Series in five games over a division rival, you get to play the team that knocked you out of the postseason last year. Oh, by the way, they feature the reigning AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Award winner, and the probable 2012 AL MVP as well.
Still, the Yanks posted the AL's best record this year for a reason. A lot of reasons, as a matter of fact. The Tigers certainly present a challenge for them, but far from an insurmountable one. Here are five keys for the AL East champs to win their 41st pennant and advance to yet another World Series.
Get good starts from pitchers not named Sabathia: Before the postseason started, this was clearly the biggest key for New York. It's even more critical now that ace CC Sabathia may not pitch in the series' first three games.
At times during the regular season, rotation depth became a major worry for the Yankees. It's still not a given, but the situation looks good for the moment.
Hiroki Kuroda scuffled a bit down the stretch but was masterful in the ALDS. Phil Hughes turned in an excellent start as well. Andy Pettitte was plenty effective. Those three pitchers, more than anyone else on the roster, are likely to determine the Yankees' fate in the ALCS. If Sabathia pitches twice, at least one of those games will be on short rest. He needs the other guys to do the job.
Keep the bullpen rolling ... and fresh: Yankees relievers were pretty much impenetrable in the Division Series. In four games, they combined for 11 1/3 innings, six hits, one run, 10 strikeouts without issuing a single walk.
Manager Joe Girardi takes some criticism for his aggressive bullpen usage, but he tends to get very good results, and he has a very good group of late-inning relievers. Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan and Co. do an excellent job of bringing home leads. They need to continue to do that, because giving away even one game in the late innings can cost you a series.
Hand-in-hand with that effectiveness is not overworking the 'pen. New York needs its starters not only to pitch effectively but to get deep into games against a good-but-not-great Tigers offense, so that the bullpen isn't asked to get 10, 11, 12 or more outs every night.
Hit home runs: There's often controversy, or at least excessive fretting, when a team relies heavily on the home run for its offense. The Yankees are surely one of those teams, but that's something to embrace, not a flaw.
New York managed to beat the Orioles while hitting four homers in five games, but that kind of ratio probably won't do it against Detroit. The Yanks' offense is at its best when it's hitting the ball out of the park. New York led the Majors in homers by a long way, and in so doing also led the big leagues in runs scored. That's not just a coincidence.
If the Tigers keep the ball in the park, they're likely to win. If the Yankees play long ball, they will probably still be playing in the last week of October.
Swing at strikes: Often, the approach of the Yankees is misstated as a matter of patience. A better word is selectivity. They're not looking to walk -- they're just looking to make sure that if you want to walk them, they let you. It's all about swinging at strikes and laying off the stuff out of the zone. They didn't do the latter very well in the Division Series.
Before Game 5, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long lamented the number of pitches out of the zone that his hitters had been chasing. That is the surest way to make yourself an easy out, and it's reflected in some pretty grisly strikeout numbers. Three Yankees struck out at least eight times in the five games, and the team as a total amassed 47 K's at the plate.
Strikeouts aren't inherently the end of the world, of course. When they go hand-in-hand with deep counts, walks, and home runs, they don't have to be a big problem at all. But when they're emblematic of a nearly team-wide flawed hitting approach, it's something to be addressed. You can be confident it will be.
Get the struggling guys going: The other key to the Yankees' offense is depth. At its best, it is dangerous at every spot in the batting order, from leadoff through No. 9. Lately, it's been firing on about half of those cylinders.
Five Yankees regulars posted an on-base plus slugging percentage below .600 in the Division Series -- the much-maligned Alex Rodriguez, but also Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher. That's more than half the lineup. That's a problem. It's almost never going to work out that all nine guys are hot at once, of course. But when five of them are cold at once, that can be difficult to overcome.