Tuesday, October 16, 2012

For Yankees, No Panic In Detroit (Just Yet)

By Bob Ekstrom

After dropping two home games against the Tigers, the New York Yankees have come face-to-face with their postseason mortality as the ALCS now shifts to Detroit. They'll need two of three at Comerica Park to keep alive any hope for a 41st World Series appearance, a task made more daunting by the prospect of Justin Verlander lurking on the mound tonight. It's not surprising that conventional wisdom — along with most of their fan base — has them dead in the water.

We all have good cause for circling Yankee Elimination Day 2012 on our calendars. The Pinstripes are hitting just .192 in this series, including 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position. They've scored in only one of 21 frames, and even then it all came via the long ball. The far more expansive Comerica Park will turn those Stadium bombs that are the Yankees' lifeblood into routine fly balls.

For New York, the ALCS has thus far been an extension of an underperforming postseason in which they are hitting .205 with a .603 OPS. Robinson Cano is the outright owner of the longest single-postseason hitless streak in MLB history, A-Rod gets booed nightly, Nick Swisher is vilified in both field and batter's box, and team captain Derek Jeter has already been lost for the postseason.

So, does anyone hear the fat lady singing? Because I sure don't.

One day after watching Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos erase a 24-point deficit on the road, I'm not about to declare any contest over, much less one involving the Yankees, who've built a franchise on improbable comebacks. Witness that 4-run ninth against Tigers closer Jose Valverde on Sunday night that very nearly changed the entire complexion of this series. Over the years, the Yankees have tainted the careers of such bullpen luminaries as Mark Wohlers, Armando Benitez, Donne Wall, and Byung-Hyun Kim with late-game heroics, and now they've relegated the Tigers into closer-by-committee mode. You just don't go deep into October without a reliable closer.

Nor is their hole even the MLB equivalent of Manning's last night. The Yankees have climbed out of this mess twice in the past, losing the first two home games to Atlanta in the 1996 World Series and to Oakland in the 2011 ALDS before winning both series. Last week, the San Francisco Giants did it, too, perfecting their own comeback by winning three in a row in Cincinnati. These turnarounds all have one thing in common: win Game 3.

Easier said than done, given the Yankees' plight? Maybe. But Verlander is no automatic October win. In 10 postseason starts, he's 5-3 with a 4.19 ERA, giving up 4 or more earned runs on 4 occasions. Sure, he's had two good starts this postseason, but both have been against the A's, the Jekyll-turned-Hyde of MLB's perennial transition from regular season to playoffs.

And Yankee hitters have some big career numbers against him, notably Ichiro Suzuki (17-for-55), Alex Rodriguez (8-for-24 with 3 HR), and Eric Chavez (8-for-22). Manager Joe Girardi can get all this production into the lineup by slotting A-Rod at DH, thereby saving Raul Ibanez (3-for-29 with 5 strikeouts) for post-Verlander pinch-hitting. With 600 miles between him and the nightly catcalls in the Bronx, Rodriguez may even find the peace of mind to turn his October around this week.

There are 4 earned runs to be had from this Yankees lineup, even with their anemic bats to date. The question is, can Philip Hughes hold the Tigers to less? He's had awful numbers against Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta (combined 17-for-37 with 4 HR), but he's had great success with the rest of the order (7-for-49, 1 HR). And the book on Hughes is that he's much better pitching on the road than at home.

However, Hughes has been inconsistent from year to year and from start to start, and it remains to be seen whether he can shoulder the burden of what may be the most pivotal game of the series. Lose, and it's an 0-3 hole that even Peyton Manning couldn't get out of. Win, and the Yankees are only a C.C. Sabathia start away from pulling even and regaining home field advantage in a series in which they've been eulogized by pundit and fans alike.

It's often said that momentum in baseball goes only as far as the next day's starter, but if an ace of Verlander's stature should fall, the effect could ripple through the remainder of the collective rotation's psyche. Circle your calendars if you wish, but for me it's a bit too early to start making Yankee Elimination Day celebration plans just yet.

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