We all figured it was going to happen. And sure enough, it happened.
Justin Verlander absolutely dominated the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night at Comerica Park, pitching his Detroit Tigers to a 2-1 victory with eight and two-thirds innings of one-run ball in which he allowed only three hits while throwing 132 pitches.
Things didn't really get interesting until the ninth. Eduardo Nunez—because of course it would be Eduardo Nunez—led off the ninth with a solo homer off Verlander, and the next thing anyone knew there were two runners on base, and Raul Ibanez was at the plate.
Phil Coke looked determined to blow it. Instead, he got Ibanez to swing over a slider for Strike 3 to end the game. The Detroit faithful went from gnawing their fingernails off to cheering with much glee.
And for good reason. Their Tigers are now one win away from going back to the World Series for the first time since 2006.
For their part, the Yankees now find themselves one loss away from going home for the winter. They are tasked with doing something that only one team has done before in Major League Baseball history, and that's come back from an 0-3 series deficit.
Spoiler alert: They will not succeed. The Yankees of 2012 are not the Boston Red Sox of 2004.
And we all remember what they did. Down three games to none in the ALCS against none other than the Yankees with the Curse of the Bambino hanging over their heads, the Red Sox fought back and stole the ALCS from the Yankees. If it's not the greatest comeback in the history of sports, it's certainly the greatest comeback in the history of baseball.
How can we be so certain that the Yankees won't make like the 2004 Red Sox and upend the Tigers? How can we know beyond a shadow of the doubt that they aren't also a team of destiny?
Hey, At Least the 2004 Red Sox Were Scoring Runs
All hats must go off to the Yankees for the fine work they've done in the ninth inning in the ALCS against the Tigers. Through three games, they've collected seven hits and five runs in the ninth.
The downside: They've collected only 13 hits and exactly zero runs in all the other innings they've played in this series.
The question isn't which Yankees hitters are slumping. It's which Yankees hitters aren't slumping. The only names that come to mind to that end are guys like Ichiro—who collected two of the Yankees' four hits on Tuesday night and is hitting over .400 in the playoffs—and Ibanez, who is still the scariest hitter in the Yankees' lineup despite his game-ending strikeout on Tuesday night.
The rest are all liabilities. Robinson Cano's hit in the ninth inning of Game 3 was his first in 30 at-bats. Curtis Granderson doesn't have a hit in the ALCS yet. Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher have both been bad enough to end up on the bench in Game 3.
It's true that the Yankees have gotten great pitching in the ALCS against the Tigers, and it's also true that you can go far with great pitching. However, the dilemma the Yankees are facing now is very much a Baseball 101 problem: If you can't score runs, you can't win games.
If you are scoring runs, on the other hand, you can at least allow yourself to hope.
Such was the case with the Red Sox back in 2004. They managed only one run on five hits in their 3-1 loss in Game 2 of the ALCS, but in Games 1 and 3 they combined to score 15 runs on 25 hits. They could have won those games if their pitching hadn't surrendered 29 runs and 36 hits, with rock bottom being the 19-run outburst the Yankees enjoyed at Fenway Park in Game 3.
Nonetheless, there was at least a shred of hope for the Red Sox because they knew they would be in good shape if their pitchers un-fouled themselves and their bats stayed warm. And since they led the AL in runs scored and OPS in 2004, they knew there was a pretty good chance their bats were going to stay warm.
In addition, they knew that the Yankees' pitching staff wasn't going to be much of a deterrent. This is a comfort the 2012 Yankees can only wish they had right about now.
The 2012 Yankees Don't Have the Luxury of Facing a Weak Pitching Staff
If the 2004 Yankees had a major weakness, it was their pitching staff. Yankees starters posted a 4.82 ERA in 2004, and their bullpen wasn't much better with an ERA of 4.43.
Not surprisingly, the Red Sox did quite well against Yankees pitching during the regular season in 2004, knocking around pinstriped hurlers to the tune of a .269/.348/.470 triple-slash line with 32 home runs.
David Ortiz, in particular, killed the Yankees that season. In 19 games against the Bombers, he hit three homers and posted a .985 OPS.
Their experience against Yankees pitching served the Red Sox well in the 2004 ALCS. Games 1 and 3 were a high point for them offensively, but the Red Sox were also able to score a total of 25 runs over the final four games of the series. An offensive outburst in Game 7 accounted for the bulk of those runs, and clutch hits in Games 4, 5 and 6 accounted for most of the others. The Yankees handled themselves well in those three games, but their bag of tricks only went so deep against a loaded offensive team like the Red Sox.
Boston's steady offensive output would have meant nothing if the club's pitching continued to struggle, but it didn't. The Yankees managed only 13 runs in the final four games of the series, six fewer than they had scored in Game 3 alone.
The offensive production the Red Sox were able to muster in Games 4-7 of the 2004 ALCS was just enough to complement the kind of pitching they were getting. You can therefore only imagine what this Yankees team would be able to accomplish with similar production from its own offense, as the club's arms are performing significantly better in the 2012 ALCS than Boston's were in the 2004 ALCS.
There's just one problem: The Yankees' hitters are going up against a killer Tigers pitching staff.
Detroit's pitching has been absurdly good against the Yankees, particularly as it pertains to the starters they've used. Doug Fister wasn't scored upon in Game 1, nor was Anibal Sanchez in Game 2. In Game 3, Verlander wasn't scored upon until after he had thrown eight shutout innings and racked up well over 100 pitches.
It should come as no real shock that Detroit's starting pitching has been so good in this series. The Tigers' starting rotation combined to post a 3.76 ERA that was second only to the Tampa Bay Rays among AL clubs. They finished the year strong, too, going 13-8 with an AL-best 2.48 ERA in September and October.
There are no weak links in Detroit's postseason rotation. Even Game 4 starter Max Scherzer, who came down with shoulder problems at the end of the season, can put seven or eight scoreless innings together if he has his best stuff. It won't be easy for him to win a duel against CC Sabathia, but he might just do it given the lack of oomph the Yankees are packing on offense these days.
If Scherzer can't get it done, the Tigers won't be too worried. They'll still have Fister, Sanchez and Verlander to turn to in Games 5, 6 and 7 if need be.
Not that the Yankees should be looking too far ahead, of course. They need take it one step at a time, and right now their primary focus should be on just getting the series back to New York.
This is yet another area where their plight is rather different from that of the Red Sox in 2004.
No Home Cooking for the Yankees Until They Earn It
When the Red Sox fell behind 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, they knew what the score was. They knew that no team had ever come back from such a deficit, and that the odds of them pulling it off were somewhere between slim and none.
But hey, at least they were at home. They could afford to worry only about winning two straight home games, something they had done numerous times throughout the course of the season.
Sure enough, they did. In thrilling fashion, to boot, as the victories they scored in Games 4 and 5 both came courtesy of extra-inning hits off the bat of Big Papi.
The Red Sox thus had some momentum when the series shifted back to New York, and the rest took care of itself.
The Yankees are in an entirely different situation this year. They started the ALCS at home, and it's going to take two straight wins on the road for them to see home again this season.
The Yankees have already lost one in Detroit, and bouncing back to win two straight there won't be easy. The Tigers are a much different team at Comerica Park than they are on the road, and these days they're playing in front of packed houses every night.
Indeed, the fans showing up at Comerica happen to be loud ones as well, which is something the Yankees aren't all that used to given the kinds of fans who have been turning up at Yankee Stadium in recent days.
Therein lies another headache. Even if the Yankees do return home, they may not receive a hero's welcome. Yankee Stadium didn't come close to being full in any of the last three games the Yankees played there in this postseason, and the fans who did bother to show up really only made their presence felt when they booed their own players.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports said it best when he wrote that the new Yankee Stadium has become "a sarcophagus if ever there was one: no matter how gorgeous and ornate the outside, it remains filled with lifelessness."
It's definitely not the old Yankee Stadium, which was always full of howling crazies when October rolled around. It was the toughest ballpark in baseball for opposing players to play in.
The Yankees will need some howling crazies if and when they return home, but howling crazies may not be forthcoming for a couple reasons.
One, tickets at the new Yankee Stadium tend to cost a pretty penny. Fans aren't going to shell out their hard-earned bucks unless they feel the team is worth it, and that leads us to the second of our two reasons:
This Yankees team seemingly hasn't convinced enough people that they're worth the price of admission. And even if they do win the next two games in Detroit, the jury will still be out.
The Yankees can hope to be energized by their fans when they return home, but it's a possibility they can't place all their chips on. They'll need to get pumped for this comeback on their own, and for that they could use something drastic.
You know, something like a tide-turning event. Something like, perhaps, a bloody sock.
Alas, there will be no bloody sock moment for the Yankees this year.
An Injured Yankees Superstar Isn't Walking Through That Door
The 2004 ALCS was chock-full of defining moments, but the one image that defines it more than all the others is Curt Schilling's bloody sock. He took the mound in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium after having a procedure done on his wounded right ankle, and he proceeded to pitch seven innings of one-run ball in a game the Sox eventually won by the final of 4-2.
It was a gutsy performance—provided you don't buy into all the conspiracy theories about what was really on Schilling's sock—and when it was over, the Yankees were pretty much spent. With the series tied, they went out with a whimper in Game 7.
This year's Yankees club would certainly benefit from its own bloody suck moment. The Bronx Bombers have shown signs of life in the ninth inning, but for the most part they've looked utterly lifeless and even soulless at times. Even down 3-0, it's hard to take it for granted that they're going to show any sense of urgency to come back and win the series.
But just imagine what things would be like if Derek Jeter walked through that door, with both his uniform and his game face on...
Well, that's not happening. Jeter suffered a broken ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1, and the question now is not when he can suit up. It's whether he might need surgery to repair his ankle. His broken ankle is not an injury that will allow heroic acts of heroism.
You can count Mariano Rivera out, too. He's been out since May with a torn ACL, an injury that generally takes a full year to recover from.
Not that Mo would have made much of a difference in this series anyway, mind you. At last check, he can't hit.
The best the Yankees could probably do for an act of heroism at this point is a hit by Alex Rodriguez against a right-handed pitcher or a hit by Nick Swisher with a runner in scoring position. A strikeout-less game from Curtis Granderson could also do the trick.
Anybody want to take bets on any of these things actually happening?
I thought not.
With no individual miracles forthcoming, the Yankees will have to join forces and forge one big miracle that they can all share. They need to be in this thing together, and it needs to be them against the world.
In essence, they need to will themselves to be a team of destiny, just like the 2004 Red Sox.
Uh, I wouldn't count on it.
Do the Yankees Have Any Unity, or Even a Sense of Purpose?
The 2004 Red Sox were a goofy bunch. They were a bunch of long-haired, bearded, whiskey-drinking idiots who looked like they were right out of some cheesy late-80s baseball movie (of which there was one).
But they were nothing if not a tight-knit group. The 2004 Red Sox team was very much a "team" in the same way the 2012 Oakland A's were a "team" and the 2012 Baltimore Orioles were a "team." They didn't need 25 cabs for 25 players after the game, as they used to say in Boston.
The 2004 Red Sox were also bound by a single mission. Most clubs want to win the World Series just to win it. The 2004 Red Sox had the added motivation of breaking an 86-year curse.
The 2012 Yankees, on the other hand...
I won't go so far as to say that the 25 guys on the Yankees' roster don't give a damn about one another, nor will I say that Joe Girardi doesn't have his house in order. They're all professionals, and Girardi has made it pretty clear over the last few years that he's the perfect manager for this Yankees team.
It's just hard to tell where the glue is or what it's made out of. From the outside looking in, it doesn't seem that the 2012 Yankees have a Band of Brothers thing going on. One assumes they're certainly not growing beards, taking shots of whiskey in their spare time and generally having a wild time doing things that eccentric ballplayers do. They are the Yankees, after all.
But these Yankees are even more dull than most Yankees teams. They looked tired, bored and maybe even eager to get it all over with. With the exception of their showing in the ninth inning of Game 3, they've looked particularly lifeless ever since Jeter's ankle decided to check out in Game 1.
At this point, they have little to motivate them. With Jeter gone, the only member from all the great Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s who's still active is Andy Pettitte, and he signed on as just another hired gun back in spring training. Goodness knows he's not the only hired gun lying around in the Yankees clubhouse, as many of their players arrived in The Bronx via free agency and trades.
The legacy of the great Yankees teams of the late 90s and early aughts probably matters little to the Yankees' current players. Those days are ancient history at this juncture, and the same is very much true of the other great Yankees teams that came and went over the years.
And let's face it. Chasing a 28th championship just doesn't have the same kind of appeal as chasing a first championship or a first championship in 80-odd years. The downside of having so many titles is that the titles themselves become much less profound once they're added to the pile.
You're supposed to win when you're on the Yankees, to be sure, but pressure such as that can just as easily inspire a fear of failure as it can a desire to win.
One has to be an optimist to believe that the 2012 Yankees have a desire to win rather than a fear of failure. And even if you do believe the desire to win is there, you'll have to admit that something else the Yankees need in order to win appears to be missing:
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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