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........