I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you’ve seen all this before. It wasn’t too long ago that the Yankees were facing the Detroit Tigers in the Divisional Series, and you’re noticing some similarities. You remember the Derek Jeter Love Fest from Game 1 of that series, and you can’t help but compare it Robinson Canó’s big performance in Game 1 of this series. You remember that Alex Rodríguez struggled terribly in that series and was famously — and ridiculously — dropped to eighth in the batting order for Game 4, and you’ve noticed that he’s 0 for 8 through the first two games of this series amidst calls for a similar lineup demotion.
You’ve seen this movie before, and you didn’t like how it ended the first time, but I’m here to tell you to relax. This was one game. A magnified game with magnified importance, but still just one game.
Freddy García was on the mound for the Bombers, and the most disappointing aspect of this game for me was that García pitched well enough to win, if that makes any sense. Certainly I’d have been depressed and despondent if he had been lit up early, but I’m not sure I’d have been surprised.
He gave up a two-run home run in the first inning on a pretty good pitch that Miguel Cabrera reached for and poked into the right field stands to give the Tigers an early 2-0 lead. After that, however, García put it on cruise control. He retired the side in order in the second inning, gave up a two-out single in the third, and set down six straight over the fourth and fifth innings.
The problem, of course, was that Detroit’s Max Scherzer was even better. It was only a few years ago that Scherzer was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, but the Diamondbacks gave up on him and shipped him to Detroit in that three-way deal that netted Curtis Granderson for the Yankees and sent Ian Kennedy to Arizona. (Speaking of IPK — 21-4/2.88/1.09? Seriously?)
Scherzer’s been great for Detroit over the past two years, so while it certainly wasn’t expected that he’d be as good as he was on Sunday, it wasn’t terribly shocking either. He labored a bit in the first inning, walking Canó on four pitches and A-Rod on five before falling into a 3-0 hole to Mark Teixeira, but he recovered by getting Teixeira to pop out to second. It was an opportunity lost, but at the time it certainly seemed like it would be the first of many. It wouldn’t be.
Scherzer went on to retire the next ten hitters in order before yielding a one-out walk to Jorge Posada in the fifth. He then hit Russell Martin to give the Yankees an illusion of a rally, but that rally died quickly when Brett Gardner lined out to third and Jeter grounded into a fielder’s choice. Not only were the Yankees still scoreless, they were hitless as well.
Austin Jackson — another player from the previously mentioned ménage à trois — led off the sixth with a grounder to short. Jeter had to range a bit to his left, but he made the play and rushed his throw a bit in an attempt to get the speedy Jackson at first. His throw bounced in the dirt several feet in front of the bag, and Teixeira wasn’t able to corral it. Magglio Ordóñez laced a hit-and-run single to right, pushing Jackson all the way to third, and suddenly things looked dangerous.
García had already given the Yankees all they realistically could’ve expected — five quality innings — but the Yankee hitters had been absolutely silent. If the Tigers were to score a run here, or even two, Game 2 might be out of reach. From there the mind raced ahead. Justin Verlander was lined up for the Tigers in Game 3, and A.J. Burnett was scheduled for Game 4. If I were a Tiger fan, I wouldn’t have to think too long or too hard about laying some scratch on that exacta.
Joe Girardi, of course, was likely thinking about all of that, but I don’t think he had anywhere to go. I suppose he could’ve gotten David Robertson ready to pitch to Cabrera, who was two batters away, but there would probably have been more questions about a move like that in the sixth inning than are now about the move he chose — which was to keep García in there. Fearless Freddy responded by striking out Delmon Young, and again the mind leapt ahead. What if Cabrera grounds into a double play? What if the Stadium crowd erupts? What if that eruption breaths some life into the listless offense? What if the big bats due in the bottom half (Granderson, Canó, A-Rod, Teixeira) channel that emotion into production?
It took just a few pitches for Cabrera to erase that line of thinking. He lined a single to center, scoring Jackson, and two pitches later Victor Martínez repeated the feat, scoring Don Kelly, who had come in to run for Ordóñez. It was 4-0, but at the time it felt like 40-0. Boone Logan came in for García and almost instantly made things worse by balking the runners to second and third, but he rebounded to strike out both Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta. The damage had been done.
The Yankees’ first hit finally came in the bottom of the sixth, a Canó blooper to left that Young probably should’ve caught, and their first run came in the bottom of the eighth on a long Granderson home run to right. If there was hope of a Yankee comeback, it was dashed when the Tigers stretched their lead back to four with a manufactured run (HBP, sacrifice bunt, single) in the top of ninth.
And there was hope again. Nick Swisher homered on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth from Tiger closer José Valverde, and Posada followed with a legitimate triple to the wall in center. (Incidentally, Posada became only the second forty-year-old to triple in the post season.) After Russell Martin worked an eight-pitch walk, the tying run was suddenly at the plate in the form of Andruw Jones, and it didn’t take a lot to imagine a home run.
To Jones’s credit, he didn’t allow himself to get caught up in the moment like the rest of us did. He took what Valverde gave him and lashed a line drive towards right field. For one brief, beautiful moment I was sure it would find the grass, scoring another run and pushing Martin around to third, but it didn’t happen that way. The ball hung in the air long enough for Kelly to grab it, but Posada was able to score to cut the lead to 5-3.
Here’s where things got crazy. The weather had been fine throughout the game, but suddenly the heavens opened up and it was raining as hard as it had been at any point on Friday night. Jeter was at the plate, but both he and Valverde struggled throughout the at bat, both trying to deal with the downpour. Jeter was constantly wiping the brim of his helmet in a futile attempt to keep the rain from dripping into his face, and Valverde kept his throwing hand tucked first under his arm and then comically between his legs in an equally futile attempt to keep his hand dry. As much as we expect Captain Clutch to come through in these situations, it wasn’t a surprise when he struck out.
And then things got crazier. Granderson came to the plate and the MVP chants began pouring down as thick as the rain. He worked the count to 2-0, but then he skied a popup towards the Tigers’ third base dugout. Avila tossed away his mask and quickly headed towards the spot where the ball would land and the game would end. The ball wasn’t in the air for very long, but it was long enough for every Yankee fan to contemplate what had happened that afternoon and sort through their fears about the two games to come in Detroit.
Avila shuffled, shuffled, shuffled… then slipped on the rain-slicked on-deck circle and fell on his ass. A second later the ball fell harmlessly next to him. When Tiger manager Jim Leyland was later asked how he felt as all that transpired, he calmly said, “Well, it wasn’t my finest moment.”
I’m not sure how I feel about Leyland, by the way. He’s a bit too comfortable for my taste, as if nothing really matters to him. I know it’s just a game he’s playing with the media, and that everything he says is not-so-secretly directed at his players, but I miss the old Jim Leyland who seemed to be dancing on the edge of a razor as he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1990s, fighting back the stress by chain smoking in the dugout during the late innings. But I suppose if you’ve been managing in the big leagues for twenty years you’ve probably seen enough to help you through anything, even a play like Avila’s pratfall.
As Granderson returned to the plate with his new life, it seemed like something was happening, something divine. Surely that ball wouldn’t have dropped if it weren’t supposed to have dropped. Surely Granderson would extend the rally. Surely he’d give Canó the chance to stand at the plate as the winning run.
Granderson took another strike, but then two more balls for a walk, and Canó came up to win the game — or at least that’s what I was thinking. Valverde didn’t mess around, pumping four straight fastballs, the last three of which Canó fouled off. I’d seen this before. I was sure that Canó would continue spoiling pitches until he found one that he liked. I imagined his beautiful swing, his momentary pause at the plate, the deafening roar from the stands, and the thrill of a walk-off postseason victory. But it wasn’t to be. Valverde came in with a splitter, Canó bounced it out to second base, and the game was over. Tigers 5, Yankees 3.
In 2006 the Yankees never got a look at either game in Detroit, losing 6-0 in Game 3 and trailing 8-0 in Game 4 before tacking on a few cosmetic runs in that elimination game. It’s conceivable that things could go that way again, but I don’t think so. Verlander has had a long season and has never pitched on short rest, so he’s far from a sure thing. CC Sabathia, meanwhile, is about as close to a sure thing as the Yankees have. In Game 4, spontaneous combustion is just as likely for Tiger starter Rick Porcello as it is for Burnett, so that game could be just as competitive as Game 3.
So step off the ledge. There’s a game to watch tonight.
[Photo Credit: Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press]