Changes in store for Yankees after thorough ALCS sweep by Tigers
DETROIT -- Miguel Cabrera's towering home run toward leftfield sailed through the sky for six seconds, a relative eternity for both a baseball and a finishing blow to hang in the air, before settling in the Comerica Park bleachers.
The Yankees' Nick Swisher, in rightfield, didn't move. First baseman Mark Teixeira idly brushed his foot through the dirt. Pitcher CC Sabathia sought a new baseball from the umpire. The outfielders in the vicinity, Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner, took a few steps toward the landing spot, more as rubberneckers than as fielders.
It was only the fourth inning, but the Yankees were the very picture of a ballclub that had been steamrolled.
The ALCS concluded with an 8-1 whipping by Detroit in Game 4 that ended New York's weeklong misery with a sweep for the first time in 36 playoff series, dating back to the 1980 ALCS. The Tigers scored nearly as many runs, 19, as the Yankees had hits, 22. The Yankees' pitching, on the whole, was good, but the contents of their bat rack appeared to be replaced by a collection of fungos.
This season the Yankees won more regular-season games, 95, than any other American League team. Their run differential, +136, was also the best. In short, they scored a lot of runs and held a lot of leads.
With a lifeless offense against the Tigers, however, New York lost all four games and never even held a lead.
"They outplayed us in every facet of the game," said third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who didn't start Games 3 or 4. "They were the better team."
If you want to blame the opponent, Detroit's starting rotation allowed just two earned runs in 27 1/3 innings of work.
If you want to blame the lineup, there was a playoff-long slump that began even before the ALCS. The Yankees hit more home runs (245) than anyone in the majors -- which was also tied for seventh-most in baseball history -- and scored the second-most runs (804), yet batted .188 as a team in the postseason and scored just 2.4 runs per game, which was less than half their season average (5.0).
If you want to blame overactive managing, Joe Girardi re-configured his lineup every day, alternately benching Rodriguez, Swisher and Granderson, and used 25 pitchers for four games.
If you want to blame intangibles, there was the demoralizing loss of captain Derek Jeter, who broke his ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1. After his injury, the Yankees were outscored 16-2 for the duration of the series.
If you want to blame karma, there was the three-team trade of Dec. 2009, when the Tigers shipped Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, while New York sent Austin Jackson and Phil Coke to Detroit, which also received Max Scherzer from the Diamondbacks. In the ALCS Granderson went 0-for-11. Jackson, on the other hand, went 6-for-17 with three extra-base hits, including a Game 4 home run; Scherzer no-hit the Yankees for five innings of Game 4 and struck out 10 in his 5 2/3 innings of work; and Coke was the Tigers' best reliever, throwing 5 2/3 shutout innings with two saves.
And if you want to blame Rodriguez, well, it seems everyone already has. Yes, he was terrible in this postseason (3-for-25) and his unique status as the game's highest-paid player and his track record as being of its most productive offensive players in history means he's had to bear a disproportionate share of the blame, when Granderson (3-for-30), Robinson Cano (3-for-40) and Nick Swisher (5-for-30) all slumped as well.
"It was a miserable series, one that was tough to go through," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. "As bad as I feel right now, I feel 10 times worse for the players. I love these guys. I love their effort. I love their desire, their work ethic. There was never a question of quitting or anything like that."
What next? It'd be unwise to remake a ballclub that had its league's best record because of four terrible games in the ALCS or the nine middling games of the entire postseason.
But such a decision could get forced upon the Yankees. The list of core players who will be free agents is long: starters Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, outfielders Swisher and Ichiro Suzuki, catcher Russell Martin and closer Mariano Rivera (though he, presumably, won't sign anywhere else).
"Every year the roster changes," general manager Brian Cashman said when asked if there'd be a major overhaul. "I can't really tell you what constitutes major or not."
Cano's $15 million option will definitely be exercised, and it's likely Granderson's $13 million option will be as well. Jeter and Rivera are both returning from major injuries, as is young starter Michael Pineda, meaning their levels of play next years are all a little more uncertain than they'd be otherwise.
And the recently introduced topic of conversation is the apparently uncertain status of Rodriguez, who must silence questions about whether his playoff decline was temporary or permanent and whether he can be an everyday starter for Girardi again. "If I'm playing my game," Rodriguez said, "Joe has no choice but to play me."
Rodriguez's previous playoff nadir was his demotion to eighth in the lineup back in 2006, when the Yankees again were playoff victims of a World Series-bound Tigers team. He recalled that experience and promised that this offseason he'd "get back to the drawing board."
"I came back with a vengeance in '07," he said.
That year he won his third AL MVP while leading the majors in home runs (54), RBIs (156), OPS (1.067) and total bases (376). While no one expects that level of production in 2013, he can probably be an above-average player while splitting time between third base and designated hitter.
"Don't count him out," Long said. "I believe Alex Rodriguez will be heard from."
Will the Yankees be heard from next year? Or is there something particularly deflating about postseason sweeps?
Of the last 17 teams to get swept in the playoffs, dating back to 2005, only one even reached its league championship series the following year -- the '07 Phillies were swept in the NLDS but won the '08 World Series.
Of the remaining 16 teams, only four returned to the playoffs the following year, and each of them lost in the division series.
Admittedly, that sample includes teams in very different stages -- young and emerging, old and fading and lighting-in-a-bottle, etc. -- and it doesn't include any Yankees teams. They are the ultimate wild card, given their aggressive GM and especially their financial might.
Check the history books, too. After the 1980 playoff sweep, late owner George Steinbrenner signed Dave Winfield to what was then the richest contract in the sport's history.
The Yankees now have a more controlled approach to personnel decisions than they did under Steinbrenner, but after an embarrassing four-game sweep, you can still bet on change.