YANKS TO CONSIDER CLAUDE RAINS AT THIRD BASE NEXT YEAR AS TIGERS SWEEP ‘EM

The above tongue-in-cheek headline refers to one of the veteran character actor’s most famous movie roles, “The Invisible Man”; Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, though the conspicuous centre of a benching controversy, was pretty much invisible in the ALCS (1 for 9) and his replacement Eric Chavez was, believe it or not, even worse (0 for 20.)  Yes, I realize Claude Rains has been dead for a long time now, but given the cold wind blowing around the Yanks’ hot corner these days, I don’t see that this would be a problem, do you?  Good old Claude would certainly come a lot cheaper than these other stiffs, not that the free spending Yankees care about such things.

As their manager Joe Girardi pointed out after it was suddenly all over though, the Yanks’ abysmal flop wasn’t all about A-Rod, it’s just that as prominent, overpaid and easy to dislike as he is, he became the focus.  But nobody on the Yankees was hitting, except (sort of) Raul Ibanez, Ichiro and Derek Jeter’s replacement, Eduardo Nunez.  Robinson Cano, likely the best second baseman in the game, broke an 0 for 29 slide with a single in the ninth inning of Game Three but was back at the futility last night, going 0 for 4 and looking utterly lost up there.

Curtis Granderson was a big, fat zero in this series (0 for 11) and was 3 for 30 with one home run and nine strikeouts in the post-season overall; this from the man who’s hit more home runs combined the last two years than anyone else in the major leagues.  He also didn’t always look too great in centrefield, breaking the wrong way on a couple of balls, which brings us to Nick Swisher.

It’s not saying much, but the Swish actually hit better in the ALCS (.250) than in the previous series (.111), but began riding the bench due to his abrupt misadventures in right field, where he suddenly resembled Wrong Way Corrigan and Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner combined.  On one fly late in Game One with two out, the ball seemed to go right through him as if he were made of ectoplasm.  He then fell down, drawing the scorn of the Yankee faithful, which turned to booing wrath when Jeter broke his ankle trying to field a hot grounder on the next play.  Yep, it had been Nick’s nefarious plan all along to nobble the Yankee captain – nobody’s ever accused their fans of being reasonable.

The Yankees made some other fielding boobs, one by Chavez in Game Three, and two by their normally sure-handed first-sacker Mark Texeira in Game Four; to be fair to Tex they were both tough plays, but he usually makes these.  For once, they didn’t even have luck going their way, falling victim to a blown call at second base in Game Two and a couple of injuries apart from Jeter’s – Phil Hughes, who’d pitched really well, had to come out of Game Three early with a back issue, and catcher Russell Martin hurt his wrist badly later in the same game, looked to be in a world of pain.

Like everyone, I felt very badly for Jeter when he broke his ankle late in Game One, it’s a terrible time to have a season-ending injury, and in retrospect it maybe was a portent of the wheels falling off the Yankee bus.  Jeter really surprised me this year, I thought he was nearing the end last season, but his superb, multi-hit game while notching hit number 3,000 seemed to galvanize him, revive his career.  He finished 2011 very strongly and had one of his best seasons this year at 38, leading all of baseball in hits with 215 and batting .313, amazing.  It was weird watching the Yankees play post-season games without him, they weren’t the same team in his absence, though not even Jeter could have saved them from their anemic hitting.

Though they’re aging and had been taking on water late in the season, their offensive futility was really bewildering and tough to explain or even to understand; after all, they’re not called the Bronx Bombers for nothing.  They led the majors in home runs and were one of two teams to score over 800 runs this season (the other being Texas, which didn’t help them any either.)  They relied on their deep hitting-lineup and power all year, it kept them winning games when their pitching was at times pretty thin with injuries and spottiness.  Ironically, the one bright spot for them in this series was their pitching – Hiroki Kuroda was very good but unlucky in Game Two and Hughes and the bullpen were very effective in Game Three – what made this even odder was that the one pitcher who wasn’t sharp was C.C. Sabbathia, normally a big-game lock for the Yanks. Certainly, the Tigers’ great pitching had a lot to do with the Yankees’ vanishing offense, though they also struggled to score against Baltimore’s more middling staff.  It’s one thing for a couple of guys to slump in a short series, it happens all the time during the regular season, as do hot streaks.  But, for the entire core of such a good batting order to all suddenly go so far south at once, well, that’s another matter entirely and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.

I sure wasn’t expecting it, not from this team, not in the post-season, but it would seem there’s something really wrong here, something rotten at the core of things Yankee.  Maybe it was just their shock and frustration, but watching the Yankee players on the field and most of all in the dugout, they seemed to be in a daze, to be just going through the motions.  They didn’t seem ready to play or interested in playing, didn’t seem to really care, they looked a little blase to me, as though appearing to be upset about having their asses kicked like this was beneath them, not cool.  I’m no doubt wrong about this, these guys are professionals who care about winning, maybe they’re so accustomed to winning that they feel entitled and don’t know what to do when they suddenly and unaccountably lose it all so badly.  Their attitude would probably have been different if Jeter had been around the last few games, and the distraction of the whole A-Rod benching controversy probably had something to do with this air of… nothingness.

Gregg Zaun, who I love for being so willing to tell it like it is, consequences be damned, nailed it as usual when he took Rodriguez to task after Game Three.  Zahn lambasted him for just sitting on the bench late in the game, chewing and spitting out sunflower seeds in a zombie-like snit, rather than at least grabbing a bat in the hope he might hit, as if he cared. Or going down to the tunnel to warm up in case he was called on to pinch-hit.  You know, like he was actually a member of the team or something, which I can’t see him being for very much longer, no matter how much money he’s owed.

Even the play-by-play TV announcers were shocked and mystified by the Yankees’ hitting struggles, were at pains to say something positive or explanatory about them.  It got so bad they were reduced to praising guys for taking pitches or fouling off a few instead of, or before, whiffing, or hitting fly balls all the way to the outfield instead of meek tappers to waiting Tiger infielders.  Rick Sutcliffe is back in his annual role, driving me up the wall as usual.  I can’t stand the droning “hey dude” tone of his voice or the harping cadence of his speech, his tendency to repeat his iffy opinions ad nauseum.

During Game Three, he was all over Justin Verlander, suggesting the Tiger ace was not sharp, struggling with his command.  Say what?  Just what does Verlander have to do, throw a no-hitter in every start?  After logging about 250 innings during the season and leading the AL in strikeouts, he’d pitched two complete-game victories against Oakland in the ALDS, the last one a shutout to win the series.  OK, so in Game Three he only struck out three and was missing with some of his pitches, but even with that he only walked one, so just how bad was his control?  His biggest problem was not his pitching, but the fact that his teammates left ten men on on base and scored just two runs, keeping the Yankees in the game.  Through eight innings, he’d given up exactly two hits, both of them dinky singles by Ichiro; in the ninth, after having thrown about 120 pitches, he surrendered a solo homer to Nunez to make the score 2-1.  This raised his post-season ERA all the way up to a miniscule 0.74.  If this is struggling, I’m sure the Tigers would happily take more of it, so shut it, Sutcliffe.

Though I’m no Yankees fan, I don’t want my negative comments about them to seem like gratuitous crowing or to take anything away from the Tigers, who were full marks for the sweep.  They’ve now taken the Yankees out in three straight series dating back to 2006 and would seem to have a Yankee-killer in Delmon Young, who won the ALCS MVP this year and did major damage against the Bombers last year too.  This places Young alongside the old-time Tiger pitcher Frank Lary, who beat the Yanks so often he was actually nicknamed “The Yankee Killer.”   The Tigers have baseball’s best pitcher in Verlander and its best hitter in Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who has been flirting with this feat for a number of seasons now, it was no fluke.

When they signed slugging first baseman Prince Fielder to a deal that would make him their third $20 million player along with the above pair, I did some head-scratching.  I questioned the wisdom of having so much money invested in just three players when there seemed to be other holes to fill, mainly in the outfield.  They already had an overweight, great-hitting first baseman in Cabrera, meaning he would have to move back to third base to make room for Fielder and I wondered about his defense there, he’s not the most mobile guy in the world.  I also wondered about Cabrera’s own take on moving, but he openly embraced the deal, encouraged it and it worked out – Cabrera was decent at third and the move obviously didn’t affect his hitting any.  Contrast this to the similar situation of the Florida Marlins signing shortstop Jose Reyes and moving Hanley Ramirez to third base.  It didn’t work out so well, Ramirez sulked and underachieved all season, eventually ending up on the all-dysfunctional and charitable “Island of Misfit Ballplayers”, otherwise known as the L.A. Dodgers – hey, maybe A-Rod will find a home there next season, he’s certainly Hollywood enough.  Fielder’s season, though not worth $20 million, was solid enough, he would seem to have made a difference and may do better in the future.

The Tigers are a very good and likeable team and I’m pulling for them all the way, the other possible World Series Champions (Cardinals, Giants) have each turned the trick in the past two seasons and it would be nice to see a new champion.  I’m really happy for the Detroit fans, who haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about on or off the field lately.  Most of all, I’m happy for their manager Jim Leyland, there isn’t one I like or admire more in the game at the moment.  My nickname for him, dating back to his time with the Florida Marlins is “Pop Fly”, he’s the central casting epitome of the grizzled, crusty yet benign baseball lifer.  You can see it all etched on his craggy, lined face, the stoic expression hiding the churning stomach as he seems to age twenty years during each game. But he’s always restored afterward, seems calm and philosophical, win or lose, he lets his players play and take the credit.

Though the Tigers have an awful lot going for them, I’m worried that their current situation could be a repeat of 2006, when they also clinched the pennant early and had to wait a time before facing the Cardinals.  They were a younger and different team then, but still the wait could hurt them this year.  The Giants are still alive thanks to Barry Zito’s heroic pitching in Game Five, and although I have nothing against the Cardinals, their repeat of the squeezing into the playoffs by the thinnest of margins act is wearing a bit thin for me, exciting though it is.  This year they’re doing it without Albert Pujols or Lance Berkman and with some new no-name heroes – Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso and Matt Carpenter, to go along with last year’s Allan Craig, Jon Jay and David Freese.  The one thing I do like about their run this year is that they’re also doing it without Tony LaRussa.  I’ve never been a fan of his and if a rookie skipper like Mike Matheny can pull this off, maybe it means LaRussa is not as much of a genius as he and others think.

© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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