While the Orioles deserve credit for pushing the series to this point due to some outstanding pitching and unexpectedly timely hitting (Nate McLouth? Really?), the storyline is inevitably going to be "What's wrong with the Yankees?" rather than how the O's won.
Giving that Yankees-centric storyline even more juice is the fact that three of the team's most prominent hitters have struggled terribly through the first four games of this ALDS. Not surprisingly, the Yanks have only scored six runs in their past three games. Add in the seven they scored in Game 1, and the Bronx Bombers have bombed, putting an average of 3.25 runs on the board in this series.
So, of the three slumping Yankees stars, which one should manager Joe Girardi put on the bench for their do-or-die Game 5? Should Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher or Curtis Granderson take a seat while someone else attempts to contribute some run production to the lineup?
A-Rod is always the easy target for Yankees fans—and baseball fans, in general. The man is being paid $29 million this year. His image seems generally contrived and phony, largely an effort to draw the sort of admiration that teammate Derek Jeter receives from fans, media and players.
So when Rodriguez bats 2-for-16 (.125) with nine strikeouts in a playoff series, he's going to receive heavy criticism. And rightfully so. If A-Rod wants to be regarded as a superstar or a "True Yankee," he has to produce in the game's biggest moments, when his team needs him the most.
However, Girardi hasn't taken Rodriguez out of the starting lineup, despite so many calling for it. The Yanks manager did push A-Rod down to the fifth spot in the batting order, perhaps the biggest acknowledgement that his third baseman hasn't provided any run production.
Yet Girardi might want to keep Rodriguez in the Game 5 lineup despite his struggles. Against Jason Hammel, Baltimore's scheduled starter on Friday, A-Rod is batting .333/.448/.833 with four home runs, nine RBI and five strikeouts in 29 plate appearances.
Even though Rodriguez doesn't look like the same player who put up those numbers—with his slower bat speed that can't catch up to a decent fastball—that performance might be too good to keep out of the lineup against Hammel.
Though the Yankees right fielder had a very good regular season—batting .272/.364/.473 with 24 homers and 93 RBI—he's slumped badly in the postseason thus far. In four games of the ALDS, Swisher has hit 2-for-15 (.133) with three strikeouts.
Swisher gets a larger benefit of the doubt from Yankees fans because of his popularity and production. He is also the beneficiary of a Yankees bench that doesn't really have a suitable replacement for him. With A-Rod, at least Girardi can put Eric Chavez at third base or Raul Ibanez at designated hitter.
Maybe Ibanez and his .500 postseason average (3-for-6) with two home runs would be the alternative in right field.
However, Swisher also has a strong history versus Hammel that Girardi will likely consider while making his decision on the Game 5 lineup. The two have faced each other for only 12 plate appearances, but Swisher has a .375/.583/.625 triple-slash average against Hammel with three RBI and four strikeouts.
Ultimately, Swisher being a switch-hitter will also probably keep him in the lineup. He hit almost equally well against right-handed and left-handed pitching, which prevents Girardi from having to pinch-hit for the best platoon matchup.
That leaves Granderson as the last option for Girardi to consider for a benching in Game 5. As bad as Rodriguez and Swisher have been, Granderson has been even worse, batting 1-for-16 (.063) with nine strikeouts and only one walk.
The Yankees center fielder was the team's best power hitter during the regular season, slugging 43 homers with 106 RBI. And the temptation to keep Granderson's left-handed power bat in the lineup with Yankee Stadium's shorter right-field dimensions has to be a strong one.
But Granderson has already been pushed down to the eighth spot in the batting order. What more can Girardi do with him, besides the obvious move of batting him ninth?
Granderson also hasn't hit very well against Hammel, which might be the tipping point in Girardi's decision-making. In 18 plate appearances versus the O's right-hander, Granderson has a .200/.333/.467 slash average with one homer, two RBI and four strikeouts.
But as with Swisher, Granderson might benefit from the Yankees lacking a suitable replacement in center field.
Brett Gardner is probably the best option. He has the speed and range to play center field well and gives the lineup another left-handed bat versus Hammel.
Yet Gardner only had 37 plate appearances in the regular season due to an elbow injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Is he sharp enough to put into the starting lineup in a decisive Game 5? Is he a better option than Granderson, regardless of how much he's played recently?
Chris Dickerson is also on the ALDS roster but hasn't batted since Oct. 1. He's also a left-handed bat with experience playing center field, though not as much as Gardner. Dickerson only had 17 plate appearances during the regular season.
It's not an easy decision either way for Girardi. But given the matchup with Hammel and the past success that Rodriguez and Swisher have had in facing him, I think they have to be in the Game 5 lineup.
Not only has Granderson not hit Hammel well, but he's arguably struggling the worst of the three and is currently buried in the batting order.
If it was my decision, I'd sit Granderson for Game 5 of the ALDS. Obviously, we'll see if Girardi comes to the same conclusion.
UPDATE: Several outlets, including ESPN New York, have reported that Alex Rodriguez has been benched for Game 5. Eric Chavez will start at third base for the Yankees.
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