In baseball, a single pitch in a hitter's hot zone could be the deciding factor between a World Series appearance or historical insignificance. More often than not, a confident team feeding off of recent success is better-suited for October than a team that appears to be superior on paper.
In the case of the 2012 American League Championship Series, the Tigers are playing the role of the team that's on fire, and the Yankees are starring as the team that can't remember how good it was in the regular season.
The series is not over, of course. The Yankees have a huge hurdle to clear tonight against Justin Verlander, but the playing field will be more even if New York can avoid the 3-0 hole.
In order to do so, there are a few things the Bronx Bombers must accomplish tonight. If they don't, it's going to be a long offseason in the Big Apple.
Stop striking out and get some hits.
We knew coming into October that the Yankees live and die by the long ball. Strikeouts are part of loading the batting order with power hitters, but the prevailing notion was that New York had enough big bats in the lineup to make up for all the strikeouts.
Turns out that this was an incorrect diagnosis. The Yankees have given new life to the term "free-swinging," averaging 9.6 strikeouts per outing in their seven playoff games. They've struck out 20 times (against just five walks) in two games against Detroit, which has contributed heavily to their going 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position.
The biggest offender has been Robinson Cano. The graceful second baseman has forgotten how to hit, batting 2-for-22 with four strikeouts in the playoffs. That's a .091 clip for a guy that hit .313 in the regular season. With Justin Verlander taking the mound tonight, the Yankees have to find a way to get good wood on the ball fast, or their season will be for naught.
Keep the lineup steady.
The big story throughout the playoffs has been whether or not manager Joe Girardi should drop Alex Rodriguez from third in the batting order. Girardi did eventually drop A-Rod—but he switched up a lot more in the process.
Even before Derek Jeter got injured, Girardi had made questionable decisions. Raul Ibanez had played the hero against Baltimore in the late innings, but that didn't justify putting him in the cleanup spot. Russell Martin hit .211 during the season and shouldn't be hitting in the five-hole, and Curtis Granderson, while he does strike out a lot, still shouldn't be hitting seventh.
The Yankees need to go back to what made them successful—batting the right guys in the right spots and letting them do their jobs. I understand that the bats have been silenced, but it only takes one good game to awaken a lineup. Hitters are creatures of habit, and constantly shifting them around, in addition to the pressure they face in the playoffs, is the worst strategy to try and shake things up.
Who will win the ALCS?
Regain that New York swagger—before it's gone for a while.
Part of the reason the Yankees had such a great regular season is because they scared teams with their power and versatility. Few teams can match the Yankees' lineup from top to bottom, and New York finished second in the majors in scoring.
They seem to have lost all semblance of that confident team in this postseason. The shocking thing is, it's not like the Yankees have young players who have little experience. This is the oldest roster in baseball, and it's wilting under the bright lights like its never been on a big stage before.
In order for the Yankees to beat Verlander, they need to remember how good they really are.
Jeter's injury is a huge blow, but that doesn't mean guys like Cano, Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher should be struggling as well. It's impossible to fathom how far the Yanks have fallen. It seems like literally every player has hit a cold streak at the exact same time, and there's no way to return to form without gaining back that good old Yankee swagger.
This brings another issue into play: the Yankees' age.
The roster has an average age of 31.7 years, by far the oldest in the majors. If the Yankees don't wake up now, they'll soon see that their amazing run of playoff successes in the last decade will be a distant memory. It's time to put up or shut up.
The window is closing on the New York Yankees.