Wednesday October 17th, 2012

DETROIT -- I have never believed in Derek Jeter's mystical powers to influence baseball games, but I am starting to think Jeter really can do supernatural things, like use his bat to hit the ball. How he did that in a Yankee uniform, I have no idea. It is a secret he should probably share with his teammates.

The Yankees are both toast and fried, an awful combination platter. They need to beat the Tigers four straight times to win the American League Championship Series. And they seem mentally whipped.

The Yankees are losing to Detroit, but they are also getting beaten by New York. The whole culture around the team is suffocating. The win-everything-now philosophy, the overspending on aging players and the media environment around this team are contributing to a playoff meltdown.

They rallied in the ninth inning in Game 3 on Tuesday night, but the most telling fact of the night was that when the game ended, the following players were not in the Yankees lineup:

1. Alex Rodriguez, $30 million salary. Yankees manager Joe Girardi benched him for striking out pretty much every time he gets to the plate. A-Rod is so lost that the next time he steps in the batter's box I expect him to look around and try to order a burger and fries from the umpire. His postseason OPS is .330.

2. Nick Swisher, $10.25 million salary. Girardi benched him too. His postseason OPS is .426.

3. Mark Teixeira, $23.125 million salary. He was removed for a pinch-runner. The Yankees signed him to be their slugger, but he has one extra-base hit in the postseason.

4. Jeter, $15.7 million salary. He is injured. Nothing the Yankees can do about that.

Now, Swisher was in the on-deck circle when Raul Ibañez made the game's final out. But that is $80 million worth of hitting talent that wasn't in the game with the season on the line.

And I haven't even counted the $14 million mystery, Robinson Cano. This guy is the Yankees' best hitter. In a normal year, without The Mike Trout Show and The Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Experience, Cano would have been a serious MVP candidate. And now ... Say it ain't so, Cano. Where have you gone, Mr. Robinson? I'll be here all week, folks, and even then, I might not see Cano get another hit.

Cano is hitting .071 in the playoffs. He was hitless in 29 straight at-bats before a ninth-inning hit. He said afterward that he wasn't thinking about being "0 for 25 or 0 for 30" (hey, what are five more lousy at-bats among friends?) and just tried to get a hit. But when a whole team slumps like this, it is fair to wonder why.

The Yankees had two hits in the first eight innings off Verlander. You don't have to tell me Verlander is a great pitcher. I KNOW he is a great pitcher. I covered his entire career as a columnist at the Detroit Free Press. I doubt that anybody on the planet has written as many nice things about Verlander's pitching as I have. If his fastball were a person, it would file a restraining order against me.

But Verlander is not a superhero. Major league hitters get hits off him fairly regularly, and major-league teams usually score some runs. He was not even overpowering Tuesday -- he only had three strikeouts -- but the Yankees looked like they were overpowered before the game started.

Why? Two silly developments stand out from Tuesday. One was the report in the New York Post that A-Rod tried to get phone numbers from a pair of female fans during Game 1 of this series. And two was a photo of Cano sitting on a chair in the Yankees' dugout during Game 3, which led to renewed speculation that Cano just doesn't care enough.

Is this ridiculous? Absolutely, especially for Cano. (Can't a man SIT DOWN without being called lazy?) But this is the environment the Yankees live in. It is not just a fishbowl. It's a fishbowl that thousands of people are trying to drain, killing the fish.

I did not ask Teixeira about the fishbowl Tuesday, but I did ask him if the Yankees are pressing.

"It's natural sometimes," he said. "We all want it so bad, and sometimes you try too hard when you want it too bad. I don't want to speak for anybody, but I've been in plenty of situations during my career where if you have one or two bad games in a row you try even harder in the next one and it just doesn't happen for you. ...

"This is a game (where) sometimes it's better to play without caring and playing almost stupid. 'OK, forget the consequences, forget what's going on. I'm just going to go out there and try to have fun and whatever happens, happens.'"

Players press all over the world. It's not exclusive to New York. But I just don't think a player as gifted as A-Rod would struggle like this if he played in any other city.

A-Rod isn't the player he used to be. We all know that. But he is better than he has played in this postseason. He is fighting an expectation he can't meet, and the results have been disastrous. I completely understand Girardi benching him. But would any other team bench a guy with that kind of track record when he was healthy? I doubt it.

The pressure ratchets up one degree at a time, and a hard job becomes impossible. Again, that's not the only reason the Yankees are losing -- the Tigers are rolling right now. But it helps explain why the Yankees suddenly can't hit. And now that they know it ... well, what the heck can they do?

"It's tough to work on things in the playoffs," Teixeira said, and let me be clear that he was answering a specific question, not complaining. "During the regular season, as a hitter or as a pitcher, you can say, 'I'm going to go out there and do this tonight. And if it doesn't work out, I'm building for tomorrow, building for the next month. There is no building for tomorrow, no building for the next month."

There is no building at all right now -- just a slow and almost complete disintegration. Maybe the Yankees can turn it around. I just don't know how.

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