Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Tigers Finish a Mercy Killing

By Jeff Kallman

CC Sabathia sat in the Yankee dugout gazing upon the field Thursday night with a look, to an outsider, that seemed suspended between resignation and disbelief, moments after his day ended two thirds of the way through the bottom of the fourth. His Detroit counterpart, Max Scherzer, who had to get past late-season shoulder barking, would remain in the serious business of absolutely throttling a Yankee lineup for another inning and a third, doing to the Yankees what Sabathia once did to the other guys.

Sabathia had just been hit for two fateful home runs. He could see, in case he had entertained even a single thought to the contrary, that his Yankees were being shoved out of an American League Championship Series in perhaps the most ignominious way in their long and long-enough-storied history. The inning sketched too cruelly for even a shameless Yankee hater to feel anything other than absolute pity, if only for a moment.

Swinging full-count strikeout by Austin Jackson, single dumped into center field on 1-1 by Omar Infante, and Miguel Cabrera crowning the first service into the left field seats. Three-pitch swinging strikeout by Prince Fielder, full-count single to left slashed by Delmon Young, and Jhonny Peralta jolting the first service, right over dead center of the zone, only a few feet short of where Cabrera's bomb landed. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sabathia may have beaten the Orioles twice in the division series but he'd begun throwing extremely hittable pitches that held on only because the Orioles got too eager, too early, too often to put the Yankees away. These Tigers weren't those Orioles. Their plate discipline was something the aging Yankees could only envy.

The Tigers had merely pried their first two runs out of Sabathia before the fourth. In the fourth, they bludgeoned him for their next four. Four Yankee bullpen bulls later, Jackson bludgeoned Derek Lowe, who'd once helped the Boston Red Sox overthrow a 3-0 Yankee ALCS lead, with a high liner into the left field seats. An inning later, Peralta hammered the Yankee coffin shut with a second launch, this one practically to the same landing spot, off David Robertson.

Leaving it to Phil Coke, who'd been sent to the Tigers as part of the deal making Curtis Granderson a Yankee, to finish what he started, after Octavio Dotel and Drew Smyly picked up Scherzer, and put the Yankees away with the final six outs swiftly enough that the Yankees should probably send him a note saying thank you for such a merciful, swift burial.

These Tigers didn't just win the pennant. They drove it to their mast using these Yankees as nails.

"Four more wins, guys!" Cabrera hollered, half as a victory salute and half as an admonitory reminder amidst the whoop-de-do, after Jayson Nix popped up high over the infield and Fielder windmilled everyone else away, doing his dancing teddy bear steps on the dirt until the ball and the pennant dropped into his mitt with a hearty snap.

You say nothing against the Tigers' heart, will, and execution when you say this couldn't possibly rank as one of the hardest-earned pennants of recent memory, even if you could say in tandem that these Yankees, their cumulative age exposed so cruelly despite a 95-win season, proved to be easier pickings than anyone watching them shake off injury after injury on the regular season, then push back the Orioles after getting that close to falling to them, would have offered going in.

Young was named the Most Valuable Player of the LCS. You can forgive him if he's tempted to add to the trophy's engraving that he drove in as many runs by himself than the entire .157-hitting Yankee team managed to do all set long.

What else did it say that Scherzer, on the Yankees' dollar, became one of only two men in postseason history to strike out ten batters in less than five innings, his afternoon — and, incidentally, his no-hit bid — ending only when Eduardo Nunez opened the Yankee sixth with a triple off the left center field wall and, after punch-out number ten at Ichiro Suzuki's expense, Nick Swisher finally found enough of a batting stroke to send an RBI double off the right center field wall, before Mark Teixiera took a walk on one strike and four straight balls?

Scherzer has come far enough to cherish every prime moment of the Tigers' season. Not every man, young or otherwise, can yank himself past the suicide of his 21-year-old brother, whom he once credited for teaching him the value of statistical analysis, and crown a splendid season of his own in the aftermath by pitching his team to the World Series

What did it say that, when Smyly came in to spell Scherzer, Alex Rodriguez finally poked his nose out of the Yankee mousehole (as a pinch hitter for Raul Ibanez, who'd finally run out of his allotted batter's box magic) and, with a chance to put the Yankees back to within two with one swing, lofted a 1-2 pitch lazily enough to center field for the side?

What did it say that the Tigers' starting pitchers allowed a measly two earned runs the entire set; that Jose Valverde, who pitched himself out of the Tigers' closing role for the LCS at least, and possibly beyond, surrendered two fewer earned runs than the Yankees produced in the set; and, that Coke, a pitcher whose regular season featured a 1.65 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, flattened his former organization with 0.80 WHIP?

What would it say if, when all is said, done, unsaid, and undone, there will yet be those in Yankeeville who refuse to believe a team that ground its way to keep the American League East was vulnerable enough to be pushed against the wall by a Baltimore team that got thisclose to overthrowing them for the division; then, through it, by a Detroit team who had to hang in and steal the American League Central from a Chicago team that plain ran out of fuel when the Tigers found a reserve on which to draw?

The last time the Yankees were shoved out of a postseason in a sweep was by the Kansas City Royals in 1980. The last time they never enjoyed a game lead in any postseason set was in 1963, when Sandy Koufax and company laid upon them the first World Series sweep they had ever suffered.

There were moments when these Tigers reminded made you think you were seeing the second coming of Koufax-Drysdale on the mound and of George Brett and company at the plate and in the field. Even Fielder got in on the glove fun with a spectacular backhand snatch of Cano's sixth-inning smash before throwing him out by about a nanosecond.

When Fielder snapped the final out into his mitt, Coke let out a whoop, then windmilled his arm the way Peter Townshend of the Who once played his guitar and threw his glove to the grass so hard you were half surprised the glove didn't drill its way to the center of the earth, and perhaps beyond.

He had every right. His first major league pitching assignment came in the same ballpark, against the team for whom he now stood triumphant, getting the side out in order as the Yankees went on to finish a conquest of Verlander.

Now, Coke wears a Tiger uniform, and he's closed three, saving two of the Tigers' four LCS wins. In the same deal that made him a Tiger and Granderson a Yankee, Austin Jackson became a Tiger, pitcher Ian Kennedy became an Arizona Diamondback, and Max Scherzer shed his Snake skin for Tiger fur. And Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, happy though he was to land Granderson, fretted about what he might have surrendered. "You're trading the future for here and now," Cashman said when that deal was consummated at the 2009 winter meetings.

That future just helped bank the Tigers' pennant and drape it over a Yankee coffin. The Coke side of life is looking pretty damn good for a Detroit that could surely use the better side of life these days.

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