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ALCS Game 3 preview: Yankees at Tigers

Justin Verlander can push the Yankees to the brink of elimination with a win in Game 3 of the ALCS. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Justin Verlander

Yankees at Tigers

Series: ALCS Game 3, Tigers lead 2-0

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET


Starters: Phil Hughes (0-0, 1.35 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (2-0, 0.56 ERA)

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Does anyone think the Yankees are going to win this game? Anyone? Anything can happen in a single baseball game. No outcome is ever preordained. Still, I doubt I’m the only one who would be less shocked to see the Yankees no-hit on Tuesday night than to see them pull out a win and give us a compelling series.

What this game offers is the best pitcher in baseball over the last two years at the absolute top of his game taking on a flatlining lineup featuring multiple hitters for whom simply avoiding a strikeout could be considered a positive sign. The numbers on both sides are striking.

First, there’s Verlander, who last year became the first starting pitcher in a quarter century to win his league’s Most Valuable Player award and who pitched well enough this season to win his second consecutive AL Cy Young award. As I wrote in my preview of this series, over his last six starts, two of them coming in the postseason, Verlander has gone 6-0 with a 0.61 ERA and 10 strikeouts per nine innings. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in four of his last six starts. His last start, which came against the A's in a double-elimination Game 5 in the Division Series, he threw a four-hit shutout and struck out 11. In his two starts this postseason he has allowed one run on seven hits in 16 innings and struck out 22. That lone run was a leadoff home run by Oakland's Coco Crisp in the top of the first inning of Game 1 of the Division Series. Verlander hasn’t allowed a run since.

Then there’s the Yankees offense. Robinson Cano, New York's best hitter during the regular season, is hitless in his last 26 at-bats, the longest hitless streak in a single postseason in major league history. Curtis Granderson, who was an MVP candidate a year ago and finished second in the majors with 43 home runs this season, is 3-for-26 (.115) this postseason with 14 strikeouts in 29 postseason plate appearances including three strikeouts in four trips in Game 2. Nick Swisher is 4-for-26 (.153) this postseason, which is alarmingly par for the course for Swisher, who has established himself as one of the worst postseason hitters in major league history with a career .167/.284/.300 line in 177 plate appearances. Alex Rodriguez, a three-time MVP and author of 647 career home runs, is 3-for-23 (.130) this postseason with 12 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. A-Rod was benched in the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS, and has been pinch-hit for twice. Perhaps even more damning, Rodriguez has just one extra base hit, a double, in his last 105 plate appearances this season stretching back over his last 23 games. A new addition to this litany of futility, Yankee catcher Russell Martin has just two hits in his last 18 at-bats (.111).

As for some other Yankees regulars, Ichiro Suzuki has a .294 on-base percentage this postseason, Mark Teixeira is slugging .360 and Derek Jeter is out for the year with a broken ankle, taking his .333/.379/.444 line in this postseason with him and handing the regular shortstop job to 30-year-old journeyman Jayson Nix. With Jeter and some early production from Martin, the Yankees have hit .205/.277/.326 through the first seven games of this postseason. Over the last six games that line has been .191/.254/.307, and if you take Jeter’s performance out of that, the rest of the team has hit .178/.242/.292 over the last six games.

There isn’t much Yankee manager Joe Girardi can do to shake up his lineup. He could start lefty-hitting third baseman Eric Chavez over the righthanded Rodriguez against the righthanded Verlander, as all three of Rodriguez’s hits this postseason have come off lefties, but Chavez is 0-for-11 with six strikeouts in this postseason. Girardi could start the speedy, slick-fielding Brett Gardner over Granderson or Swisher in the outfield, but Gardner was on the disabled list for most of the season with an elbow injury, wasn’t cleared to swing a bat until October and is just 1-for-4 since receiving that clearance. Backup catcher Chris Stewart hasn’t had an at-bat since September 29 and hasn’t had a hit since Sept. 26, nearly three weeks ago.

Yankee starter Phil Hughes, who was roughed up by the Tigers in August but dominated them in June and was sharp in his l0ne Division Series start against Baltimore, is an afterthought here. The Yankees haven’t scored in their last 12 innings in this series and are going to face a pitcher who hasn’t allowed a run in his last 15. If the Yankees win this game it will be one of the biggest upsets of a postseason filled with them and could completely change the outlook of this series. More likely, they’ll wake-up Wednesday morning down 0-3, a deficit that has only been overcome once in major league history, an exception the Yankees (particularly Rodriguez, who, with Jeter and Mariano Rivera sidelined by injuries, is the only active Yankee remaining from the 2004 ALCS), would rather forget.

-- By Cliff Corcoran