Saturday, December 15, 2012

Swept into the Trash

             After a grueling five-game first round series against the Orioles, the Yankees had to report to their ballpark the very next night to open the ALCS against the visiting Detroit Tigers. With the Tigers knocking off the A’s in Oakland two nights previously, the visiting team had the luxury of a day off while the team with the best record in the AL, the Yankees, had no time to rest from the divisional round.

            Despite the scheduling gaff, the Yankees had the Tigers right where they wanted them. With Justin Verlander having to pitch Game 5 of the divisional series, he wouldn’t be available until Game 3 against the Yankees, so the Yankees would have the first two games at home against two Tiger pitchers not named Justin Verlander. In addition, with Detroit knocking the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2006 and last season in 2011, revenge had to be fresh on the Bombers mind. The only question that remained was, “Will the Yankees finally be able to wake up with their bats?” With 2012 MVP and Triple-Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the Tiger lineup, the Yanks were going to need to score more runs that the pathetic showing they barely slipped by the Orioles with.

             The reason the Yankees wanted Andy Pettitte and his 19 postseason victories back in pinstripes was for games like this in which the Yanks needed to jump ahead in the series before the Verlander monster appears.

             With CC Sabathia already used from his decisive Game 5 against the Orioles, manager Joe Girardi went to the other lefty to get things started. After throwing a scoreless first inning, Pettitte sat on the bench and watched the offense continue to waste opportunities. With two outs, the Yankees managed to load the bases against Doug Fister and looked prime to put some runs on the board early. The struggling Alex Rodriguez came to the plate, and with the home crowd behind him trying to get his bat to wake up, he lined a grounder which sure looked like was going to be a 2-run single, but instead Tiger shortstop Jhonny Peralta made a diving grab and got the force out at second base. It only got worse an inning later, again with two outs and the bases loaded, Cano was at the plate. Cano would smoke a grounder  up the middle which also had 2-run single written all over it, but the ball hit off the pitcher’s mound, then off the pitcher’s glove, to the waiting hands of Peralta who snatched the ball in mid-air and threw a non-hustling Cano out at first. The Yankees were inventing all new ways to not score.

             Both starting pitchers kept the zeroes on the board and the Yankee offense wasn’t able to put any rallies together from there. Pettitte’s pitch count was rising and the Tigers finally got to him in the top of the 6th. Former Yankee prospect Austin Jackson lead off the inning with a triple. With one out Pettitte walked the dangerous Miguel Cabrera and choose to go after the left-handed hitting Prince Fielder. Instead of a big strikeout or doubleplay, Fielder singled up the middle to bring the first run of the series across the plate. With Cabrera now at second, Delmon Young, who hurt the Yankees with some big homers in last year’s playoffs, knocked in the 2012 MVP with a double and the Tigers now had a 2-0 lead.

             Andy Pettitte had to leave after one-out in the 7th inning with a 2-0 deficit and no help from the offense whatsoever. The Yankee-killer Delmon Young struck again, this time of Pettitte’s replacement Derek Lowe who served up a solo homer to left for a 3-0 Tigers lead. The Tigers added another run to make it 4-0, and although he struggled in the divisional series and it wasn’t a save situation, Jim Leyland allowed Jose Valverde to pitch the bottom of the 9th, and this turned out to be the most exciting bottom half of an inning the Yankees would experience throughout their entire 2012 playoff run.

             Valverde and his over-the-top celebratory antics have bothered Yankee players and fans for a number of years, what better way to stick it to him during a crucial playoff save. Russell Martin led off the inning with a simple single and took second base on defensive indifference.  Then the Seattle import Ichiro Suzuki lined a 2-run homer to right to cut the Tiger lead in half at 4-2. 

             With two outs and nobody on, Mark Teixeira managed a walk and also took second base on defensive indifference. With Raul Ibanez at the plate, the veteran who had hit a list of dramatic homeruns for the Bombers in late September and in the first round of the playoffs, Valverde foolishly decided to challenge him. Ibanez had one last ounce of magic in those hands and lofted a game-tying 2-run homer to right which tied the score at 4. With Yankee Stadium rocking, it brought back images of the Yankee Dynasty run under Joe Torre.

              The Yankees couldn’t put it away in the 9th, so they needed to go to a bullpen that was taxed from Games 3 and 4 from the Orioles series. The best chance for the Yankees came in the bottom of the 10th. Curtis Granderson, who has been invisible for weeks, managed to work a walk and was lifted for pinch-running Brett Gardner. As he’s supposed to, Gardner stole second, and the Yankees were set up with Gardner in scoring position at second, and Russell Martin at the plate, only needing a single to end the dramatic affair. Martin couldn’t get the job done, Derek Jeter behind him failed too and the game stayed tied.

             It was the 12th inning when all went wrong for Derek Jeter and the Yankees, and it was probably at this moment that the Yanks lost the series. Girardi was forced to send the rookie David Phelps on the mound to keep the Tigers at bay. Cabrera led off the inning with a walk, and after one out, Delmon Young lined a shot to right which looked like Nick Swisher had a beat on, but Swisher mistimed his sliding catch attempt and the ball fell in for a double. Cabrera had scored and Detroit had their lead back.

             Then Jhonny Peralta, who killed the Yankees with his glove earlier in the night, hit a weak infield grounder to the shortstop hole. Derek Jeter, trying to make the play, got his feet twisted up and while trying to field the ball and ended up breaking his ankle. What was left of the Yankee Stadium crowd was in utter silence and from the body language of Jeter’s teammates, Detroit might’ve well just have been declared the ALCS winner right there. The Tigers brought another run home in the inning to give them a 6-4 cushion. There would be no more Yankee magic in the bottom of the 12th, the bats went down in order with the Stadium practically empty by the end of Game 1.

             After a short night’s sleep, both teams were back at it again for an afternoon match up of Game 2 which would pin Anibal Sanchez against Hiroki Kuroda. For the first time in Jeter’s major league career, he was out of the Yankee lineup for a playoff game and would miss the remainder of the playoff with his broken ankle.

             Though the rest of the team looked defeated since Jeter went down, Hiroki Kuroda took to the mound and pitched his heart out against a dangerous Tigers lineup. In fact, Kuroda would go to the 6th inning with a perfect game in hand, before Peralta led off with a single. The Yankee offense was again a no-show and the crowd was growing tiresome of the lackluster efforts by the likes of Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson.

             Yankee Stadium for Game 2 also saw a less-than-sell-out crowd for a playoff game and the hometown fans were more interested in booing their players than anything else, with good reason. The Yankee bats struggled to put anything together that even resembled a scoring threat. The Tigers finally got to Kuroda in the 7th and scored on a Delmon Young fielder’s choice. The next inning, the Tigers put two more runs on the board from RBI singled and Kuroda was down 3-0 unjustly and was out of the game after 8.2 innings of inspiring work. Although a save situation, Jim Leyland left the battered and bruised Jose Valverde in the bullpen and let former Yankee Phil Coke finish off the lifeless current Yankees for the lame 3-0 victory.

             Down 2-0 to the Tigers and heading into the freezing Comerica Park against hard-throwing ace Justin Verlander, Yankees manager Joe Girardi shook up the lineup in attempt to squeeze some runs out of his comatose squad.

             The struggling Nick Swisher, a former fan-favorite who now the Yankee faithful  blamed Jeter’s injury on when he miss-played Delmon Young’s line drive double in the 12th inning of Game 1, was relegated to the bench and instead Ichiro would start in rightfield. Brett Gardner, barely able to swing a bat since coming back from his shoulder/elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2012, was put in left. The problematic fielding, but quick footed, Eduardo Nunez started at short. The biggest headline grabber was Girardi not starting Alex Rodriguez at third, but going with Eric Chavez instead, who hadn’t much better recently either.

             The enigmatic Phil Hughes was given the ball for Game 3 with the Yankees entire season riding on his unpredictable shoulders. Down 3-0, the Yankees would be as good as gone for 2012. Earlier in the regular season, Hughes had pitched against Verlander and won the game 6-2 in a complete game performance. Months later, Hughes wouldn’t be able to duplicate his effort. With the game stuck at 0-0 in the bottom of the 4th, Hughes allowed a solo homerun to Delmon Young to start the inning. The next batter, Andy Dirks, walked and something seemed wrong with Hughes’ back. The doughy-around-the-waist Yankee righty couldn’t continue and needed to be replaced by the young David Phelps.

            Quintin Berry begun the Tigers 5th with a grounder to third base, where Eric Chavez, A-Rod’s Game 3 replacement, bobbled the ball and allowed Berry to reach on an error. Berry would later score in the inning on a Cabrera double and the Tigers were sitting pretty with a 2-0 lead with no fight from the Yankee bats. Although Verlander was throwing up zeros on the board, he wasn’t exactly sharp and left many pitches in the heart of the strikezone. Luckily for him, the Yankee bats were still struggling and they couldn’t do much with his mistakes other than foul them off. The Tigers threatened in the 6th inning with a bases loaded opportunity and only one out with Miguel Cabrera primed to put the game away. In a nail-biting showdown, Boone Logan was able to entice a hard-hit grounder to Chavez (who didn’t boot it this time) and he was able to turn the inning-ending doubleplay. It seemed as if it could’ve been a turning point to inspire the Yankee bats, but they would go another two innings without any runs. Verlander stayed in to start the 9th inning with the 2-0 lead, which seemed like 10-0 the way the Yankees offense wasn’t scoring. 

            Eduardo Nunez, a Girardi replacement for Game 3, provided another slight glimmer of success in an otherwise dull series for the Yanks when he battled Verlander with a 1-2 count. The young Yankee hooked a hanger from Verlander over the leftfield wall and gave his team some life with the score now 2-1 Tigers. Justin Verlander got the next out, but with a high pitch count, Leyland decided to go to Phil Coke to finish the game (with still no confidence in Valverde). Coke was able to get Ichiro out for the second out, but Mark Teixeira kept the Yankees alive with a single to center. Jayson Nix game in to run for Teixeira and he would make it to second when Robinson Cano finally showed up in the series and hit a single of his own to left. With the tying run at second base and the go-ahead run at first, it was Raul Ibanez, the Yankees’ most clutch hitter of late, with a chance to bring the Bombers back from the dead. The lefty-on-lefty match up was exciting, and ended up in the win column for Phil Coke who brought Comerica Park to a roar by striking out Ibanez to end the game. It would be Coke’s second save of the series to get Verlander the win. With the Tigers up in the series 3-0 and the Yankees showing no sign of life, they shouldn’t have bothered playing Game 4, but everyone had to go through the motions.

              Mother Nature actually gave the Yankees a small break when heavy rains forced Game 4 to be moved back one-day later, but it would only delay the inevitable.

             Nick Swisher got his right field job back, but A-Rod and Nix were still on the bench for the start. CC Sabathia saved the Yankees hide in Game 5 against the Orioles with a dominating complete game performance, but apparently he used all his bullets for that start because he had absolutely nothing against the Tigers in Game 4. After already giving up a run in the 1st and the 3rd to put the Yankees in a 2-0 hole against Matt Scherzer and his pitch-count going through the roof, Sabathia was officially knocked out in the 4th inning after two 2-run homers surrendered to Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta. Down 6-0 Girardi lifted Sabathia after only going 3.2 innings in a pitiful way to end a season.

             The Yankees lone run came in the 6th from a Nick Swisher double that scored Nunez, but Detroit got the run back in the 7th from an Austin Jackson homer off of Derek Lowe, and then did one better with another Peralta homer, a solo shot this time, off of David Robertson to push the Tiger lead to 8-1 and there was the ballgame.

             For the second consecutive year, the Tigers had eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs, but with this time the Yankee bats showing no fight at all except the one little outburst in the bottom of the 9th of Game 1 when they stormed back from a 4-0 deficit. The Yankees, who had to fight to the very last day of the season to capture the AL East crown against the surging Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, and had wowed Yankee fans all season long with the long ball, simply had no hitting gas left in the tank when all was said and done. 

            All that is left is an aging roster filled with expensive sluggers who can’t make a dent once it comes playoff time........

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Buck stopped there

             It was only fitting that the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Texas Rangers in Arlington in the new one-game Wild Card format, setting up a long-awaited standoff with the New York Yankees, the team they were hot on the trail for during the second half of the season. Both teams played each other evenly down the line at nine games a piece in the regular season, and the playoffs would follow suit, prompting one of the narrowing and exciting postseason match-ups in recent Yankee history.

             Also as part of these new playoff rules implemented by MLB to spice up baseball in 2012, the number one seeded team (Yankees) would have to start on the road for the divisional series, which means the first two games would take place at Camden Yards. CC Sabathia, who has been shaky in his last two playoff stints in pinstripes, was on the mound trying to get back into his 2009 mode when he was absolutely dominate. For the Orioles, Buck Showalter pulled Jason Hammel out of his hat to pitch, despite the fact he hadn't made a start in several weeks. The Yankees grabbed an early lead thanks to an Ichiro double, with Jeter running on a full-count, which made the score 1-0 Yankees and placed Ichiro on second base with no outs. Instead of a big rally with Alex Rodriguez at the plate, Ichiro attempted to steal third with no outs and was caught (a big no-no in baseball), then Hammel came back to strikeout Rodriguez. The Yanks would only get one run that inning when it looked like the inexperienced Hammel was about to be on the ropes. Sabathia cruised through the first two innings, and in wasn't until the 3rd that he experienced some issues. He would find himself in a bases loaded jam and facing Nate McLouth. Sabathia hung a slider and the hot-hitting McLouth smoked it into right to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead. The Yankees would tie it an inning later thanks to a RBI single from Mark Teixeira, and from there both starting pitchers locked in. The Orioles best chance against Sabathia came in the bottom of the 8th when JJ Hardy lead off with a double. Sabathia got tough; striking out Adam Jones next, getting Matt Wieters to pop up, and then finally retiring Mark Reynolds to end the threat. With the score tied 2-2 in the 9th inning, the home team Orioles brought out their mega closer, Jim Johnson, who had an amazing season with 51 saves, to pitch the inning. Apparently the Yankees weren't impressed with the closer's stats because Russell Martin greeting him with a solo homer to left that gave the Yanks a 3-2 and stunned the crowd at Camden Yards. Other Yankees joined the fun such as Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano's double off knocked Johnson out of the game and secured the Yanks with a mighty 6-2 lead. Girardi let Sabathia come out in the bottom of the 9th with a 7-2 lead, but after retiring two batters, but failing to get the third, Sabathia was lifted after a great 8.2 inning performance of two-run ball and David Robertson got the final out for the 7-2 Yankee win.

             The Yankees sent their other lefty, Andy Pettitte, to the hill for the second game in search of his 20th postseason win against the inexperienced Wei-Yin Chen. The Yankees, just like the night before, had a chance to do damage early, but only got one run out of it. Jeter and Ichiro lead off with singles, giving A-Rod an opportunity to finally make some noise in the postseason since 2009. He lined a shot up the middle that was looking to be a RBI single, but Oriole second baseman Robert Andino snared it in mid-air and toss it to second to double up Jeter. The next hitter, Robinson Cano, then smoked a double to right that scored Ichiro from first on a bizarre play at the plate in which Wieters tried to Ichiro twice around the plate, but missed and the Yanks were up 1-0. Like Sabathia, Pettitte was doing fine until a two-out rally surfaced in the bottom of the third. A bloop hit, followed by a solid single from McLouth, and then a walk to JJ Hardy, put Chris Davis at the plate with the bags juiced. Instead of getting out of the jam, which the crafty Pettitte usually does, Davis ripped a pitch into right and the Orioles took a 2-1 lead. The Yanks had their best chance to either tie it up or even take a lead an inning later in the 4th. With the bases loaded and only one out, Eduardo Nunez came to the plate and popped a weak fly ball to shortstop. Derek Jeter followed that up with a ground out to third and the rally was officially over. The Orioles padded up their lead in the 6th after a Matt Weiters double, Mark Reynolds hit a single to the opposite field in right which scored Wieters for a 3-1 Orioles lead. The Yankees struck back in the 7th, Nunez finally hit the ball, a bloop double, and Jeter got him home with a RBI single and the Yanks were only down 3-2. The bats for both teams took the rest of the  night off, allowing Pettitte to go 7 innings, taking the hard luck loss, while Chen went 6.1. Jim Johnson was back on the mound in the 9th for a save this time, looking to put the meltdown the night before behind him, and he did just that, sitting down Jeter and Ichiro very quickly, then getting (of course) A-Rod to strikeout (of course) to end it 3-2 in favor of the Orioles. The save by Johnson tied the series at a game a piece, heading into New York for the final three.

             Being the top-seeded team in the AL was finally going to have some payoff with the next three games occurring at the homer-happy Yankee Stadium that benefits the pinstriped club. Hiroki Kuroda was picked to pitch game three and he was going to lock horns with the young Mike Gonzalez, who has had alot of success against the Yanks in 2012 going into this game. Unlike the previous two games, the Orioles struck first in the top of the 3rd from a Ryan Flaherty solo homer. That lead didn't last long, in the bottom of the frame with Russell Martin on base, Derek Jeter hit what looked like an ordinary fly ball to center, but Adam Jones took a step in and soon found himself trying to catch up (while blowing a bubble from his bubblegum). The ball dropped in at the warning track, allowing Martin to score to tie it up 1-1, and putting Jeter at third with two outs. Naturally the Yanks couldn't get a hit to get Jeter in, so it was left tied at 1. The Orioles second blow (as in homer) came in the 5th when 20-year old Manny Machado crushed a ball to left that made it 2-1 Orioles. Other than that, Kuroda was great, going 8.1 innings and only giving up the two runs. Unfortunately for the Yankees at the time, Gonzalez was even more stingy and the Yanks went into the bottom of the 9th trailing 2-1. The 51-save man Jim Johnson came out to pitch, and this is when a monumental substitution in Yankee history occurred. Manager Joe Girardi sat Alex Rodriguez down, who looked terrible trying to hit all night plus struck out against Johnson the night before, and brought up Raul Ibanez to pinch-hit. Ibanez had a number of key homeruns and hits during September, most of which came in a pinch-hitting role. Rodriguez had slumped in postseasons in the past and boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd is nothing new, but this is the first time its been admitted by the Yankee hierarchy that he's simply not a superstar anymore.

            The move paid off big time when Ibanez was clutch again and sent a Johnson pitch to right field, tying the game 2-2 with A-Rod watching from the bench. The Yankees couldn't win it in regulation, so it went into extra innings. Jeter too would see bench time, but this was injury related when he was taken out after limping around all night on his bad foot that he fouled pitches off of. In the bottom of the 12, that man again, Raul Ibanez lead off the inning against lefty Brian Matusz. On the first pitch he saw, Ibanez blasted it into the night and the ball went far over the right field wall for a dramatic walk-off 3-2 Yankees win!!

             With the dramatic win the night before and the old lefty Joe Saunders on the mound for the Orioles, the Yankees had to have felt the clinch at the tips of their fingers in this best of five series. Jeter was back on the field, sort of, taking the DH spot for the night to rest his aching foot. Girardi started A-Rod at third base and he finally delivered a hit, to the surprise of the crowd. The Yankee bats were quiet yet again in this game, and they failed to put a dent into the veteran Saunders. The Orioles got on the board against Phil Hughes in the 5th after the Yankee rightly danced a tight rope in the previous innings, Nate McLouth lined a solo homer to right that gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead. Cano came up in the 6th with runners on the corners, and his weak ground out to second was to too to turn a double-play, so Jeter scored to tie the score at 1. Cano, along with Swisher, Granderson, and A-Rod, were absolutely brutal in trying to make any sort of contact, and the Yankee crowd was letting them know it. There would be no Raul Ibanez magic this night, Girardi used him only once, with two outs as a substitute for Jayson Nix, and Ibanez came up empty. The move didn't make much sense since Nix was hitting the ball well all night and had two hits to show for it. The night before was a 12-inning affair, this one did one batter with the 13th. In the top of the inning, and with Girardi and Showalter unloading their bullpens, it was left up to Pedro Strop versus Davis Phelps. It would turn out Phelps being the one who would finally buckle. His double to JJ Hardy brought Machado home to score and the Orioles had a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Showalter's last man standing, Jim Johnson came on for the save and didn't blow it this time. Girardi once again went to the bench for Alex Rodriguez again Johnson, this time selecting Eric Chavez, but he fared no better and Johnson was able to lock down the 2-1 Orioles win, pushing the series to decisive 5th game to move onto the next round to face the Detroit Tigers.

             When Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman restructured CC Sabathia's deal after the pitcher opted out of his original deal before start the season, it was to come up big and wins important games such as a deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. The Yankees ace came up big in Game 1 with a strong 8.2 inning performance for a win, he would need to do the same in order to get the Orioles out of the Yankees' hair. Girardi, seeing the writing on the wall with his crop of slumping hitters in the middle and bottom of the lineup, sat Alex Rodriguez (and his $30 million a year contract) in favor of Eric Chavez for third base, and inserted new fan-favorite Raul Ibanez as the DH. Jeter was back at shortstop after his one day off as a DH. Sabathia and Hammel both picked up from where they left off in Game 1 and were stingy through the first four innings. It wasn't until the bottom of the 5th when the Yankees struck. Mark Teixeira innocently lead off with a single, then with the first baseman not holding him on, actually bad calf and all stole second base to get himself into scoring position. Raul Ibanez would bring Teixeira home on a bleeder up the middle for a 1-0 Yankee lead that seemed so huge for the fact runs were hard to come by during this series. In the top of the 6th, there was a little controversy thanks to a foul ball hit by Nate McLouth that seemed to possibly nick the right field foul pole. Replays weren't conclusive enough to show that the ball changed any direction as a result of it hitting the pole, so after going to check the Instant Replay, the umpires ruled it foul, and Sabathia finished off McLouth with a strikeout. The Yanks would strike again in the bottom of that inning, an Ichrio Suzuki double to the wall in front of the Yankee bullpen brought home Jeter and gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead. There would be more Yankee bat-awaking. Curtis Granderson, another candidate for worst Yankee hitter this postseason, finally connected on a pitch and blasted it to the second deck in right that now had the Yankees up 3-0 with CC Sabathia in complete control. The Orioles finally made it interesting in the top of the 8th after Matt Wieters lead off with a single. Manny Machado took a walk next, but Sabathia was able to come back from a 3-1 count to strikeout Mark Reynolds. The official Sabathia-killer, Lew Ford, came up next and singled under the diving glove of Jeter to bring home the first Oriole run of the night. Andino was next and he chopped an infield single that Sabathia wasn't able to field smoothly, and his throw to second to nail a runner was too late. So the bases were loaded and the Orioles trailing 3-1, with their best hitter of the series, Nate McLouth, batting. This is where Sabathia got into ace-mode; he struckout McLouth, then got Hardy to ground out to short on a fantastic running throw by Jeter. The threat was gone and Sabathia was back out on the mound for the 9th inning with Soriano taxed from the previous two nights, and Game 1 of the ALCS looming the next day. There was no threat this time from Baltimore and CC sat them down 1-2-3 in the 9th for a complete game 3-1 Yankees victory to send them into the next round.

            For two teams with big offensive weapons, it came down to very stingy pitching (with the help of batters on both sides being cold as the chilly October weather), but one team had CC Sabathia and the other team didn't. It was good to see Girardi/Cashman stand up and admit finally that A-Rod isn't a superstar  player anymore through the moves they made pinch-hitting for him, but A-Rod wasn't the only bat lacking; Cano, Swisher, Granderson, and Teixeira really need to wake up during the next round or else the Yankees will not be going to the World Series....