Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2012

Jeter Goes Down, And The Yankees Look Ready To Follow

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously noted, this post is one day late because of my travel to and attendance at ALCS Game Two in the Bronx on Sunday.

It was gray and rainy on the New Hampshire seacoast Sunday morning. As I headed out for the drive across southern New England to Gotham, the gloomy weather surely matched the disposition of Yankee fans, wherever they resided. In the wee hours of the morning, after staging a furious 9th inning rally that erased a four run deficit, the Yankees had fallen to the Detroit Tigers in Game One of the ALCS, losing 6-4 in 12 innings. But far more consequential than the outcome of one game was the season-ending injury to team captain Derek Jeter. Going to his left in the top of the 12th, Jeter fractured his left ankle. Stunned fans at the Stadium, and those who had stayed up past their bedtimes to watch from home, saw him land awkwardly on his left foot even as he reached down to field Jhonny Peralta’s ground ball. Jeter went down and rolled over, letting out a shout of obvious pain even as he flipped the ball weakly to second baseman Robinson Cano. Those who had gone to bed early, perhaps even before New York came roaring back on a pair of two-run homers by Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez in the final frame of regulation, were greeted with the disheartening news over their morning coffee.

One cannot overstate the impact on the Yankees and their fans of losing Derek Jeter. First there is the fact that at age 38 the shortstop who many thought was succumbing to the inevitable onslaught of aging when he hit just .270 in 2010 had yet another outstanding season. Jeter hit for both average at .313 and relative power for one who has never been a power hitter, with 15 home runs, one less than the previous two seasons combined, as well as 32 doubles, his highest number of two-baggers in five years. His 216 hits led the majors, and his 9 post-season hits were tied for the lead in that category when he went down, even as many Yankee hitters were struggling mightily at the plate.

Beyond his contributions on the field, Jeter is of course the face of the franchise. His constantly classy demeanor, his determined play, and his singular focus on winning in October have made him the heart and soul of the Yankees from his first full season in 1996. Throughout his career his star has always beamed brighter than those of the many superstars who have played alongside him. It is simply a given that when the public address announcer at the Stadium presents the starting lineups before each game, no player ever receives a longer and louder ovation than number two. Suddenly, in a single heart wrenching moment, the driving force of the Yankees was off the postseason roster.

I finally escaped the rain in central Connecticut, and by the time I checked into my hotel in midtown the sun was competing with scattered clouds for dominance overhead. A short time later, as I exited the #4 subway and headed into the Stadium half an hour before the four o’clock game time, the sun had declared victory and the thermometer was reading pleasantly warm for mid-October. But while it was a picture postcard setting for a playoff game, there was plenty of anxiety in the stands as fans wondered how the team would respond to the loss of Jeter. Speaking in the locker room after the Game One defeat, general manager Brian Cashman said “The best way to honor Derek is the same way they honored Mariano (closer Mariano Rivera, lost for the season in May with a torn ACL), just by battling and competing and winning.” In the subdued atmosphere player after player spoke of the need to step up even as they acknowledged the magnitude of the loss. Now on the field it was time to turn words into deeds.

For his part starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda turned in a valiant effort. The right-hander was starting on three days’ rest for the first time in his career. Yet despite being in uncharted territory he retired the first fifteen batters he faced before finally yielding a single to Peralta to lead off the 6th. Kuroda responded by ending the inning on three ground outs. In the 7th he gave up a double and a single to put Tigers on first and third, but then got slugger Prince Fielder to go down swinging on a full count. Delmon Young then tapped a grounder to Jayson Nix at short, and in the stands we started to rise from our seats, thinking that an inning-ending double play was at hand. But while Nix flipped to Cano for the out at second base, the ball slipped from Cano’s grasp as he started to throw to first, and Detroit took a 1-0 lead.

An inning later Kuroda recorded his tenth and eleventh strikeouts of the game, but then yielded back to back singles to Omar Infante and Austin Jackson. On the Jackson single to right Infante took a wide turn around second. Replays clearly showed that Cano had taken the throw from right fielder Nick Swisher and tagged Infante out while the runner’s hand was still a yard from the bag, but second base umpire Jeff Nelson called him safe. While Nelson later admitted his error, the inning continued.

Yankee manager Joe Girardi then went to the bullpen, and Kuroda left to a standing ovation as Yankee relievers were asked to record a single out. With growing dismay, we watched as first Boone Logan, then Joba Chamberlain, and finally Clay Rapada each failed to do so. Each faced one batter and left to a chorus of boos after yielding two more singles and a walk, a collective failure that plated two more Detroit runs. Finally Cory Eppley ended the inning by striking out Young, the Tigers’ designated hitter.

Inevitably, many Yankee fans have focused on the blown call by umpire Nelson, but I’m not so sure it really mattered. Yes, 1-0 is a different situation than 3-0, but there’s no doubting that one run is all the visitor needs if the home team fails to score at all. Rather than stepping up, batter after batter in pinstripes stood down. On the day the Yankees managed just four hits. Only one, Mark Teixeira’s two-out double down the right field line in the 1st inning, was for extra bases. Four other Yankees reached base, three on walks and one on an error. Only Teixeira in the 1st and Ichiro after reaching on the error in the 6th, advanced to scoring position. Those were also the only two innings multiple Yankees were on base. In two games at the Stadium the Yankees and Tigers played 21 innings. Twenty times the scoreboard displayed a zero for the Yankees’ efforts at the plate.

One should tip one’s cap to Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez who threw seven scoreless innings, and reliever Phil Coke who stifled New York in the 8th and 9th. But Sanchez gave up seven earned runs in just three innings when he faced the Yankees two months ago. The reality is that at the most important time of the year for the Yankees and their fans, far too many bats have gone silent irrespective of who is on the mound. Through the ALDS and the first two games of the ALCS, Swisher is hitting .154. Alex Rodriguez, whose struggles led to him first being pinch-hit for and then benched in the ALDS, singled in the 9th to raise his postseason batting average from .091 to .130. Curtis Granderson, who made the final out of the game, is hitting .115. Most perplexing is Cano. The second baseman finished the regular season on a tear, with nine consecutive multi-hit games. In the playoffs he is now batting .063. He has gone hitless in his last twenty-six at bats, setting an unenviable major league record for the longest string of batting futility in a single postseason.

The sun had set by the time I left the Stadium on Sunday, though it was still pleasantly warm for October. The series shifts to Detroit now, where the Yankees must face reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in Game Three. They still have to actually play the games, and New York has come back from two down before. But despite the clear skies and warm air, as I made my way up to the elevated station to catch the #4 train the atmosphere around me was as gloomy as the New Hampshire weather had been half a day earlier. Unless Yankee hitters do more than just talk about stepping up, the sight of the captain on the ground, grimacing in pain, will be remembered as an unhappy harbinger of an early winter in the Bronx.

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