On the line at Yankee Stadium tonight, the end of the season versus the glory of the ALCS. Agony or ecstasy in their undiluted forms. Nervous, excited? Sure. Not scared though, that’s not our thing.
Rookie Ivan Nova fired the ball at Austin Jackson to start the game and whatever butterflies were in my stomach were blown away by the gas same as Jackson.
Don Kelly stepped to plate and Nova continued to deal. With a strike to Kelly, he threw his wrinkle curve for the second pitch. Kelly opened up, waited and hooked the spinning orb into the right field seats. You’ve seen Paul O’Neill do it a bunch of times. Same little flick. The next pitch to Dangerous Delmon Young was a change-up. Good idea to the first-pitch-fastball loving Young, but up at the top of the strike zone, the change up is vulnerable. Young, the best hitter in this series from either team, killed it. 2-0 Tigers, and the butterflies returned hauling lead.
Derek Jeter led off the first for the Yankees by swatting a hot shot down the first base line but Miguel Cabrera fell and smothered it with his big belly. I wonder now how difficult a play that really was, but at the time I figured Jeter wuz robbed. The Yankees went quietly after that.
Nova battled with Magglio Ordonez to start the second. Nova kept throwing good pitches, but Ordonez eventually tugged at a low breaking ball and scalded it into the left field corner for a double. Nova retired Avila on a grounder to second and caught a break when Jhonny Peralta shot a bullet right to Alex Rodriguez for the second out. He struck out Ramon Santiago to end the threat. And his night, as it turns out. He had forearm stiffness and could not continue.
Nova was confident and he was aggressive. He threw strikes and looked good with his fastball. But he let up two home runs on poorly executed off speed pitches and put the Yanks in a hole. Nobody is going to blame Nova for blowing the season, but it would have been nice to give the Yanks a crack at drawing first blood.
Mark Teixeira hit a ground rule double with one out in the second. The Yanks could not move him around. Two backwards Ks made the inning especially frustrating. Phil Hughes replaced Nova in the third and had a great inning. He rang up two strike outs and he got Miguel Cabrera to ground out. The best part is that when facing Delmon Young, he merely yielded a laser beam single.
Gardner’s single and Granderson’s walk preceded Cano with two outs in the third. He got a tough strike call on the ump’s favorite corner (again, the lefty batter’s outside corner was given generously) and battled from there. He protected close pitches, though I have no idea if they would have been called strikes. I give Robbie the benefit of the doubt considering the previous calls. He got a couple of chances at hittable pitches and couldn’t produce. He flew out on a high heater to center to end the inning.
Hughes started the fourth and retired Victor Martinez. Ordonez smacked a fastball to right for a single and that was it for Hughes. How far could he have gone? He looked pretty sharp. But trailing 2-0 and a long winter of fishing for CC awaiting the Yankees, Girardi went to Logan to face the lefty Alex Avila. Avila was hitless in the entire series up to that point, so of course he hit the first pitch for a single. Logan got the righties though and the score stayed at 2-0.
Finally in the fourth, the Yankees looked dangerous. Alex walked and Swisher and Posada hit singles after a Teixeira pop out. Bases loaded. Russell Martin popped out. Brett Gardner popped out and the air went of the balloon with a sickening hiss.
CC Sabathia started the sixth facing Austin Jackson. In Game Three, they had several very frustrating match ups. Add another one to the list. Jackson hit a broken bat double on a pitcher’s pitch deep into the at bat. Sabathia responded to strikeout Don Kelly and Delmon Young, though he had to work for it. Girardi called for the intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera. Figure a homer by either Cabrera or Martinez was going to kill the game, so might as well make the less powerful guy end it. Sabathia threw a fat breaking ball down the middle and Martinez served right back into center field for a dreaded two-out RBI. The inning ended there, 3-0 Tigers.
Things looked grim at that point. But Fister did not look good enough to hold the Yankees down forever. He got two quick outs in the fifth and faced Cano. He threw a little cutter or slider toward the inside corner and Robinson turned on it like a woman scorned, launching it into the second deck. 3-1.
CC came back out for the sixth and retired Alex Avila. If Alex Avila could have batted for every single spot in the lineup, the Yankees would have thrown three shutouts and maybe two no-hitters. He walked Jhonny Peralta and gave way to Rafeal Soriano. It was the end of a very sad ALDS for CC. Hope it was not his last game as a Yankee. Soriano got a double play ground ball to clear the slate.
The Tigers went to pen to start the sixth, which I thought was a good idea. Fister had thrown 92 pitches and in a two-run game, no need to push things. Jim Leyland called on Game Two hero Max Scherzer. He looked less than he was in Game 2, but he still got the first two outs. Posada managed to ground another single for his sixth hit of a fantastic ALDS, but Martin whiffed on a change-up two feet inside.
The Detroit pitchers really had it made in this series – at least the two games I covered. The umps gave the pitcher’s a ton of latitude on that one corner, and every pitcher they trotted out had a natural fade right to that spot. The Yankee southpaws were left to swing at pitches on the outside corner or off the corner and not being sure where strikes ended and balls began. The righties had it even tougher, as they almost had to be hit by a pitch to get a ball called on the inside corner.
At this point, let’s just skip past the Platonic Ideal of the Yankee bullpen which retired 11 straight Tigers which ease from the sixth through the ninth. Precision and power; if you blinked, you missed them pitch. Soriano, Hammer, Sandman. Nothing but slack-jawed gawkers in their wake.
The Yankees loaded the bases with one out again in the seventh. Derek Jeter hit a slow grounder and hustled his ass-off for a hit. Joaquin Benoit replaced Scherzer to face Curtis Granderson. Granderson put on his best at bat of the night, worked the count full and guided a low outside pitch into right for a single. Jeter did not realize how deep the right fielder was playing, because he could have made it to third easily. He got there on the next pitch as Cano squeaked it off the end of the bat and it spun past Benoit for an unlikely hit. Bases loaded for Alex. He got one beautiful pitch right down the pipe and he fouled the fastball back. He swung through a change up well out of the strike zone for strike three. You could lick the disappointment oozing out of the Stadium.
Mark Teixeira came up next and took five straight pitches for a walk and a 3-2 game. All five pitches looked like balls, though the one called a strike was on the upper edge which usually does not get called. Benoit threw another five straight balls to Swisher, but this time he recorded a strike out for his troubles. The first pitch, which was both high and outside, was called a strike and it screwed up the rest of the at bat. Benoit just kept aiming near that same spot and Swisher finally swung at a couple of them. He missed.
The bottom of the eighth got quickly to Gardner with two outs. Somehow Benoit was still in there. I thought he was going to blow it on every fastball he threw. Gardner slapped a single through the hole and everybody knew a steal was coming. Benoit threw a high heater, Gardner broke, and Jeter swung. I was shocked, but the ball looked right off the bat. The kind of fly ball to right that just carries over the wall at the last instant. The right fielder Don Kelly got back to the wall and reached up his arms. Their was no kid to pull the ball into the stands, and Kelly caught it against the wall.
Should Jeter have let Gardner steal? My opinion is that when the tying or go ahead run is at the plate, he should have carte blanche to swing away. The best way to win the game is with a home run right there. Jeter almost got it. It was just an out and now I wish he hadn’t swung, but I trust the hitters to make the determination. If they can crush a pitch, they should swing. I don’t fault Jeter for that decision, he gave it a ride.
Trailing 3-2 entering the ninth, the Yankees sent their two best hitters to the plate against the guy who guaranteed he would beat them. It was a pretty great showdown. To beat the Yankees, Jose Valverde would have to beat their best. And if he brought that weak-ass shit he brought in Games Two and Three, the Yankees were going to beat him. The stage was set for a Yankee Classic.
But it never happened. Curtis Granderson worked a long at bat and got two pitches to hit. He fouled off the first one. He popped up the last one. He missed them, plain and simple. Pitches he’s tattooed all year long, he missed them. Robinson Cano got a sweet chance when the first fastball tailed right into his happy zone, but his lumber betrayed him. His swing looked pure, but on contact the bat came into two pieces and the ball lost crucial juice. It went all the way out to fairly deep center where Austin Jackson made the catch. I have no trouble imagining where that ball was headed had the bat maintained structural integrity. It was going to a happy place.
That left it up to Alex Rodriguez. Whatever good will that man built up in this town with his epic 2009 Postseason, he may have squandered tonight. Hopefully we’re not that fickle. He struck with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh when a hit would have tied the game. As the tying run, he struck out in the ninth to end the season. He took a low strike and watched a splitter float over the middle. He finally went right through a fastball down the middle.
Having the season end in ALDS sucks beyond anything else, except not making it in the first place, or of course, losing to the Red Sox. I’d rather get stuck with the hideous memories of the ninth inning of Game Seven in Arizona than be eliminated like this. The Postseason stretches on endlessly, but it’s like a phantom limb for Yankee fans now. We can feel it out there, but we can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t use it. Reality crashes in and our world opens up for other things to fill baseball’s void. But that happens anyway. A few more weeks was all we asked. And an honest chance at number 28.
All year long, I noticed that the Yankees win big and lose close. That’s the mark of a very good team. I wish they won more games when trailing late. Maybe that’s entirely a function of luck and timing which the players cannot control. The 2009 team did it all year long and then they did it in the Postseason and won a World Series. The 2011 team rarely did it in the regular season and failed in three comeback bids in the ALDS. Each time one swing of the bat at the right time would have won the game for the Yankees. But they never got that swing. In 2009, they easily could have been knocked out by the Twins or Angels if not for Arod’s heroics. If Jeter gets three feet more on his eighth inning drive, the Yankees are the team with heart and character. A few feet short and they’re overpaid losers.
The Yankees are the better team. I don’t think anyone could walk away from this series thinking the Tigers outplayed them. But CC Sabathia went head to head with Justin Verlander and got smacked down. CC got no decisions, but his performances in Game Three and Five went a long way to deciding the series for Detroit. The starting pitching scared many of us before the ALDS, but they Yankees were fine there. It was CC and the bats, scoring nine runs total in their three losses. Not cashing in on any of the big moments in all three losses. Legends were ripe for the making, but not this year.
I covered the end of 2010, and now the end of 2011. I think this is much, much worse than last year. Maybe that’s the fresh sting, but I’m sticking to it.
Couple last things though, because this is baseball, and the Yankees gave us a good season and they don’t deserve to go out in a flood of piss and vinegar. Not what we wanted, given how they ended the year on top, but from where I started with this team, I give them mad props. Thinking they were a third place finisher who might catch a break and snag the Wild Card to winning 97 games at a trot, wow.
We probably will never see Jorge Posada play baseball again. He was one hell of a Yankee. I think ultimately he came up too late in his career to accumulate the numbers he’ll need to be ensrhined in Cooperstown, but I would support an even bigger honor. Having his number retired by the Yankees. What a wonderful ALDS. Thanks for everything Jorge.
And though it will be impossible not to take this loss with us into the upcoming off-season, be sure to take something else with you. Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 5. Has he ever looked better? He broke bats like match sticks. Martin never moved his glove even a hair. And his pitches spun and cut at breathtaking speed. Vaverde got three saves, got to celebrate, but Mariano reached Nirvana in his final inning of the 2011 season. Take that with you, too.