Tigers push Yanks to 0-3 precipice in ALCS

Jose Valverde was not around to give the Yankees a helping hand Tuesday night in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series as he did in Game 1 when they came back from a 4-0 deficit to push it into extra innings.

The margin was half that this time, but Tigers manager Jim Leyland instead stayed with his starter, and who could blame him when the starter was Justin Verlander? After eight innings of getting nothing off the reigning AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner other than two singles by Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees actually chased Verlander from the game but could not shove it into extras against lefthander Phil Coke, who gave up a couple of two-out singles before ending the game with a dazzling 3-2 slider to strike out Raul Ibanez.

Cut Ibanez some slack. He cannot do it all, even though it seems that he must. The Yanks are the last place they want to be – down, three games to none to the Tigers in the ALCS. Only once in the history of best-of-seven postseason baseball has a club overcome that deficit. The Yankees do not need to be reminded about that. They were on the other side of that equation in 2004 when the Red Sox ran off four straight victories to get to the World Series where they won four more in a row to end the Curse of the Bambino.

Although it must pain the Yankees to rely on something the Red Sox did for inspiration, that is the dilemma they find themselves in now. Having ace CC Sabathia on the mound for Game 4 Wednesday night is a plus, but, frankly, to this point pitching has not been the Yanks’ problem. They have a staff ERA of 3.10, which should not result in a record of 0-3.

Despite the ninth-inning rally Tuesday night, the Yankees’ offense remains anemic. Their only run in Game 3 came on a leadoff homer in the ninth off Verlander by Eduardo Nunez, who was not even on the Yankees’ original roster for the ALCS. He was added when Derek Jeter had to be removed because of a left ankle fracture sustained in the final inning of Game 1.

Nunez’s homer ended a scoreless streak of 20 innings for the Yankees, who have scored in only two of 30 innings in this series and have not had the lead in any one of them. They are hitting a collective .182 with a .291 slugging percentage in the ALCS.

A single by Mark Teixeira in a gritty at-bat and an opposite-field knock by Robinson Cano to halt a hitless string of 29 at-bats, the longest in franchise history in postseason play, kicked the Yankees in gear with two down in the ninth, but it was awfully late. Ibanez did not have another miracle in his bat.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi altered his lineup somewhat, but the results except for Nunez were not all that favorable. Brett Gardner, who played left field and batted leadoff, was 0-for-4 at the plate and failed to get a ball out of the infield. Eric Chavez, who started at third base over Alex Rodriguez, was 0-for-3 and made an error that led to an unearned run that was the difference in the game.

A-Rod was not only benched but also buried on it. He was not even called on to bat as a pinch hitter against the left-handed Coke. Girardi reasoned that had he summoned Rodriguez to hit for Ibanez the Tigers would have countered with righthander Joaquin Benoit. The manager preferred the Ibanez-vs.-Coke matchup than Rodriguez-vs.-Benoit.

That may not have been vintage Verlander out there, but the Yankees did no real damage against him. He had only three strikeouts but did not walk anyone. Verlander may have fallen out of his rhythm in the lengthy fourth and fifth innings when the Yankees made several pitching changes, but he did not cave in.

And still, due in large part to outstanding ensemble work by five relievers, the Yankees were in the game. Verlander would have been pitching with a more comfortable margin had the Tigers not stranded 10 base runners – six in scoring position – over the first six innings. It was another example of Yankees pitchers doing their jobs and Yankees hitters not doing theirs.

For all the success in the Yankees’ storied history of 27 World Series titles and 40 AL pennants, the ALCS loss in 2004 remains a deep wound that would finally be healed if they could pull the same trick. The task begins with Game 4. They should not think of anything else but that until a victory leads to Game 5…and Game 6…and Game 7. Lord knows the Yanks know it is possible.

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