ARLINGTON -- "Formidable," to borrow Phil Hughes' word, is how the New York Yankees' rotation appears going into the 2010 American League Championship Series. That would be formidable, one through three.
In the fourth spot, there will be A.J. Burnett, he of the impressive stuff and the substandard regular season. But the three people ahead of him have resumes so impressive and/or recent Division Series outings so impressive that the Yankees can approach this meeting with the Texas Rangers with their usual October quota of confidence.
The Rangers are a team with a wonderful offensive blend of speed and power, but this is the postseason. Typically, the pitching is more of a determining factor than ever. Here, there will be larger issues at stake for the Yankees and Rangers, but any postseason series that can give you a matchup between Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee is already in the plus column.
The Yankees have tweaked their rotation to put Hughes in the Game 2 start, following CC Sabathia in the opener, with Pettitte in Game 3. That would put Pettitte opposite Lee, who cannot take his accustomed No. 1 rotation position because he had to be used in the deciding Game 5 of the AL Division Series against Tampa Bay.
Pettitte and Lee could meet again if there is a Game 7. As legendary lefty matchups go, this would be one to savor. Pettitte has the postseason record for victories with 19. Lee has owned the last two postseasons, with a 6-0 record and a 1.44 ERA in seven starts.
For Pettitte, the task at hand is the difficult Rangers lineup. Lee won't be batting, and Pettitte won't look at this game as a personal pitching showdown with Lee.
"No, man, no, that has absolutely nothing to do with it," Pettitte said on Thursday during the Yankees' interview sessions. "I mean, I'll focus on what I've got to do. If I give up more than two, three runs, I feel like, in the postseason, you're going to get a no-decision or you're going to lose that game. For me, it seems like a magic number. You give up three runs or so, it's hard to win those games. You've got to go out there and throw a good game."
The switch in the rotation order also makes sense, because Hughes has been a notably better pitcher on the road this season (3.47 ERA vs. 4.66 at home). And, as manager Joe Girardi noted, Yankee Stadium may be "a little bit more favorable to a left-handed pitcher."
At this point in his career, Pettitte can pitch anywhere on the planet in the postseason.
"Early in my career, pitching at home for me was just a nightmare because I felt like I wanted to do so good, and I wanted to have such a great start in front of the home fans," Pettitte said. "Now, at this stage of my career, it really doesn't matter. Nothing is going to get me overexcited. It's great pitching at home, it's great to be in front of the home fans, but for me, it's getting dialed in, having that tunnel vision and trying to stay as relaxed as I can, instead of getting too emotional about anything."
Hughes made the first postseason start of his career an occasion for celebration, pitching seven shutout innings against Minnesota to clinch the ALDS. This came as no surprise to Pettitte.
"Phil has the absolute perfect demeanor to be in the rotation and to be in the rotation in New York," Pettitte said. "He's very laid back, and he's very confident in what he can do."
And Hughes pitched with poise and maturity.
"Obviously, you know it's the playoffs, and it's kind of tough to tell yourself otherwise," he said Thursday. "But as long as I can control the adrenaline and not get out of the strike zone too much, I'll be fine. I knew I'd be amped up and I thought that was something I would have to control. But once I got out there, I felt like it was any other game."
Burnett was an enigma for the Yankees in the second half. But he handled his ALDS demotion to the bullpen with grace.
"Reality, excepting it, you know?" he said Thursday. "I mean, those guys were our horses all year, the three starters. They deserved to start.
"Can't pout, man. It's my own fault; I was the one out there pitching all year."
So Burnett gets another starting opportunity. You wonder if he's concerned about the long layoff between starts.
"I was until [Wednesday]," Burnett said with a small smile. "I got to hit two of my own guys, so I got some rust off."
That happened in a simulated game. But Girardi said that overall Burnett threw the ball "pretty well" in the simulated game.
"I am confident in him," Girardi said. "And I've seen what A.J. can do, and I saw what A.J. did in the last season for us. We know what A.J. can do and we are looking for a good start from A.J."
By now, Sabathia, the Friday night Game 1 starter, is practically a given for the Yankees.
"He's been great for us," Pettitte said. "You can't ask him to do much more than he's done, that's for sure. He didn't have a great start against Minnesota, so I expect him to be unbelievable in this series. I think he's going to be great. He's a horse, he's a true ace. He's done exactly what this organization was hoping and wishing he would do when he came over here. I think he's been even better than they thought."
For the New York rotation overall there were questions going into the Division Series, with Pettitte having only three starts since coming off the disabled list and Hughes making his first postseason start. Those questions were answered in the most positive way possible. Now, going into the ALCS, the Yankees' rotation is all the way up to three answers and one question.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.