The need for more speed

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Joe Girardi has had to tinker with his lineup far more than I’m sure he would have liked this postseason, and it was all out of necessity. Alex Rodriguez simply has not hit right-handers at all, and the duo of Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher went from middle of the order thumpers to bottom of the lineup automatic outs. He inserted both Brett Gardner and Eduardo Nunez into the starting lineup last night and was mostly rewarded, as Nunez drove in their only run with a solo homer while Gardner had some of the team’s best and longest at-bats. The Yankees still lost though.

I expect tonight’s lineup to be very similar to last night’s with maybe one or two minor changes. Maybe Swisher is back in the starting lineup and Granderson sits, something like that. Either way, I think the stretch of 9-1-2 hitters — Nunez, Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki — will remain the same to give the team some speed on the bases. They didn’t use that speed at all last night though, as Ichiro singled twice and didn’t bother to steal second either time even though the one thing Justin Verlander will let an offense do is steal a base. I understand that every base-runner is precious when you’re struggling to score, but I felt the situation called for pushing the envelope.

Max Scherzer is a bit more stingy with the stolen base than Verlander, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the speed game should come out of the playbook. Frankly it doesn’t make sense to play Nunez and Gardner and not have them try to steal when they do reach base. Obviously the whole getting on-base thing is quite important, but Scherzer hasn’t been himself lately and is probably the least effective Tigers’ starter right now. If last night’s ninth inning mini-rally is going to carry over to today, it will be because Detroit’s starter is still dealing with some nagging shoulder issues and can’t reach back for 95+ when in a jam.

Desperate times do call for desperate measures, and Girardi did sorta take those measures with his lineup moves last night. If he keeps Nunez and Gardner in the lineup for Game Four, even if they don’t bat back-to-back, the club has to try to take advantage of their speed. I’m surprised they have yet to lay a bunt down towards Miguel Cabrera at third or even Prince Fielder at first, but if Scherzer is pitching well the first time through the order it might be a shot in the middle innings. The Yankees have to try to generate some offense in different ways tonight and hopefully going forward later in the series, and taking advantage of the fresh legs (both Nunez and Gardner missed a big chunk of time with injury this season) could be one way to do it.

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Hughes cleared to throw following back stiffness

Via Joel Sherman: Phil Hughes has been cleared by doctors to throw today after leaving last night’s start with mild stiffness in his back. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild saw the right-hander stretching between innings yesterday, which raised a red flag. He threw just three innings and 61 pitches in the game. Assuming today’s throwing session goes well, Hughes will be able to throw his usual between-starts bullpen session tomorrow and might even be available in relief down the road if the Yankees make the Tigers sweat a little in the ALCS.

Nothing to lose (except everything)

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees are playing with house money at this point. No one realistically expects them to win the next four games and mount a historic comeback from a three games to none deficit in the ALCS. The pitching has been fantastic and the hitting has been dreadful. Even is CC Sabathia goes out and dominates the Tigers in Game Four tonight, there’s a pretty good chance the Yankees will support him by scoring zero runs.

I hope that’s not the case though. Maybe those tough grind-it-out at-bats in the ninth inning last night were an indication that the Yankees are starting to figure things out offensively. Robinson Cano even got a hit in that inning, and they always say that all it takes is one hit to turn things around. Max Scherzer had a great regular season but has been battling shoulder problems of late, which is why his fastball velocity fell off in a big way in September. He averaged 94.2 with the fastball during the season but just 93.0 in Game Four against the Athletics last week.

Maybe that reduced velocity allows the Yankees to scratch a run or two across early and actually take the lead, something they’ve yet to do in the series. Maybe that’s enough for Sabathia to squeeze out the win. Then the Yankees have Andy Pettitte going in Game Five and Hiroki Kuroda on regular rest in Game Six. Sabathia would come back on three days’ rest to square off against Verlander in the winner-take-all Game Seven. It could happen. It’s incredibly unlikely, but not impossible.

At this point, the Yankees are the underdog. They’re not your typical small market underdog, but they’re an underdog nonetheless. No one expects them to win the series and I’m sure most people believe they’re going to lose Game Four tonight and get swept out of the playoffs as well. Expectations are low or just flat out non-existent, which can be a dangerous thing. It’s easy to forget how good of a team the Yankees really are, and if one or two (or three!) bats wake, they could become a headache for the Tigers in a hurry.

The Yankees have nothing to lose at this point other than their entire season, and I think most people assume that it’s only a matter of time before Detroit wraps up the series. Joe Girardi & Co. are going to take it one game at a time and blah blah blah cliche cliche cliche. There’s nothing to say, they just have to start hitting and hope the pitching holds up. It would behoove the Tigers to end this series as soon as possible though, you don’t want to give the Yankees that Game Four win. Anything can happen after that.

Yankees down 3-0 to Tigers in ALCS following Game Three loss to Verlander

The Yankees are really trying to disprove this whole “pitching win championships” thing. They got another fantastic performance from the pitching staff in Game Three, but yet again the offense didn’t muster much of anything until it was too little, too late. The Yankees are down three games to none in the best-of-seven ALCS and are just one more loss from the end of their season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Ninth Inning Rally

Justin Verlander threw 132 pitches in Game Three and I think only the final 17 were stressful. He held the Yankees to two base-runners — two ground ball singles by Ichiro Suzuki — in the first eight innings and was more efficient than overpowering. Verlander went to eight three-ball counts (28 total batters faced), which is an awful lot, but he also didn’t walk anyone. He struck out just three, only got eight ground balls (22 ball-in-play outs), and I counted just two tough defensive plays by Detroit. Very easy outing for Verlander, at least until the ninth inning.

With the bullpen a mess, manager Jim Leyland stuck with his ace right-hander for the final three outs even though his pitch count was over 110. Eduardo Nunez led the inning off and worked a real hard at-bat, fouling off six pitches before hitting a solo homer to left on the ninth pitch of the encounter (a hanging curveball). It was, by far, the team’s hardest hit ball of the night. In fact, you can argue that their second hardest hit ball was a foul ball down the left field line earlier in the at-bat. Brett Gardner followed Nunez by fouling off four pitches as part of an eight-pitch at-bat before grounding out. That ended the night for Verlander.

Leyland went to former Yankee Phil Coke against various left-handers, and he surrendered two two-out singles (Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano) to put the tying run in scoring position and bring Raul Ibanez to the plate. Joe Girardi‘s options at this point were Ibanez against Coke or either Nick Swisher or Alex Rodriguez against Joaquin Benoit, and the skipper stuck with Ibanez. I would have done the same thing despite his general inability to hit southpaws just because he’s been out of this world clutch these last few weeks. Raul worked the count full and fouled off the sixth pitch of the at-bat before swinging over a slider for strike three and the 27th out. Coke deserves some credit, it was a great slider.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Back Breaker

Assuming the Yankees do not make a historic comeback, Phil Hughes will end his season at 201 total innings and with a stiff back. He exited Game Three after three innings and 61 pitches, but not before Delmon Young hit a hanging two-strike curveball out of the park to left field for a solo homer. He’s been killing the Yankees in the postseason for two years now, no reason to expect it to stop anytime soon.

Anyway, Hughes walked three while striking out just one in those three innings, pitching out of jams seemingly all night. The pitching line — 3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K — looks a little better than he actually pitched, and it could have easily been four or five runs had the Tigers picked up some timely hits. Joe Girardi said after the game that they’ll re-evaluate Hughes tomorrow before deciding whether or not to take him off the ALCS roster, which would automatically disqualify him from the World Series roster should the Yankees actually make that historic comeback. Not a great night for Phil, but he did battle and the effort is always appreciated.

Effective Relief

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

It’s a good thing Monday was an off-day, because Girardi had to go deep into his bullpen following the short start by Hughes. The first guy out of the bullpen was David Phelps — he inherited an 0-2 count on Jhonny Peralta — who completed the fourth inning before allowing an unearned run in the fifth. Eric Chavez booted a hard-hit ground ball before Miguel Cabrera clubbed a double into the right-center field gap, accounting for the Tigers’ second and eventual game-winning run. I was a bit surprised Girardi didn’t go to Derek Lowe in that spot, but I guess he didn’t want the ground ball guy in there while Nunez was playing short.

Clay Rapada replaced Phelps and retired the two left-handed hitters he faced with an intentional walk sandwiched in. Cody Eppley took over, finished up the fifth, then put two men on-base with one out in the sixth. Boone Logan replaced him and allowed a single to pinch-hitter and the right-handed Avisail Garcia — Garcia is now 3-for-3 off Logan in the series — before escaping the bases loaded jam with a 5-4-3 double play from Cabrera. I have to admit that I assumed the worst when I saw Logan was going to face Miggy with the bases juiced, but he got the ground ball and Chavez started the twin-killing with a nifty backhand pick.

Boone remained in the game to throw a perfect seventh as well as retire the first two men in the eighth, his longest outing (2.1 innings) since throwing 2.2 innings against the Phillies back in June 2010. Joba Chamberlain stepped in to wrap up the inning, so all told six pitchers allowed just two runs (one earned) in eight innings on seven hits and five walks (one intentional). They only struck out three, but the pitching staff definitely gave the offense a chance to get back into the game. The Yankees have gotten a 2.25 ERA out of pitching staff and only have three wins in eight playoff games to show for it. Gross.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Leftovers

Cano’s ninth inning opposite field single ended an ugly 0-for-29 stretch that was the longest single-season hitless streak in playoff history. Ichiro had the two ground ball singles but didn’t steal second either time, which was quite annoying. I thought he had a chance for a Johnny Damon-esque double steal in the seventh since the Tigers were playing the big shift on Teixeira. The one thing Verlander will let you do is steal a base, and the Yankees didn’t take advantage of it.

The Bombers sent 32 hitters to the plate and I counted just seven “good at-bats” (by my completely arbitrary definition) — Ibanez in the second (eight pitches), Gardner in fourth (nine pitches), Ibanez in the seventh (seven pitches), Nunez in the ninth (nine pitches), Gardner in the ninth (eight pitches), Teixeira in the ninth (seven pitches), and Ibanez in the ninth (seven pitches). Seven “good out-bats” out of 32 total plate appearances isn’t good enough, especially when three came from the same guy.

Nunez’s ninth inning homer kept the Yankees from getting shut out in back-to-back playoff games for the first time in their history, so I guess that’s neat. It was also the first ninth inning homer Verlander has surrendered in his entire career, believe it or not. Nunez is the first non-Derek Jeter shortstop to hit a postseason homer for the team since Jim Mason in Game Three of the 1976 World Series. The Yankees only had five hits and zero walks in the game and have scored 12 of their 21 postseason runs in the ninth inning or later. That’s just too many. They have to start scoring earlier in the game.

It was a really rough night for Russell Martin, who allowed two stolen bases (in two attempts) and a passed ball. He also hurt his right thumb on a jam-shot ground ball against Verlander in the ninth, but said after the game that he’s fine and will play tomorrow. It’s worth noting that Nick Swisher was on deck to pinch-hit for Martin when Ibanez struck out to end the game. Not sure if that was just a matchup thing or a sign that Russ’ hand wasn’t good enough to hit.

The Yankees did get a little luck in that sixth inning when Omar Infante stopped at third on Garcia’s single off Logan. He would have scored easily — replays showed that Curtis Granderson had not even picked up the ball by the time Infante reached third base — and given the Tigers a three-run lead. The Cabrera double play following and that was that. Nunez also deserves some credit for a nice diving stop in the fifth, keeping the ball on the infield to save a run.

Sam Holbrook’s strike zone was just ridiculous; Verlander was getting a ton of calls off the plate to lefties. That’s not why the Yankees lost, but it certainly didn’t help. Here’s the PitchFX plot so you can see for yourself.

Box Score & WPA Graph

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights. The Yankees have not been swept in any playoff series since the Royals got them in the 1980 ALCS, which happened before I was born. Crazy. The Yankees also had four winning streaks of at least four games this season, which is what they’ll need to do to advance to the next round. For now, one game at a time.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The season is in the hands of CC Sabathia, who will start Game Four on Wednesday night against Max Scherzer. Hopefully the ninth inning was an indication that the offense is starting to awake. That would be nice. That game starts at 8pm ET, and check out RAB Tickets if you want to score some last minute deals to attend.

ALCS Game Three Thread: Yankees @ Tigers

This situation right now is pretty much the closest the Yankees will ever get to being the underdog. They’re down two games to none in the best-of-seven ALCS, they haven’t hit a lick in the postseason, and the best pitcher on the planet will be on the mound for the Tigers tonight. It’s a truly dire situation for Joe Girardi‘s club.

That’s why a win tonight would be huge. The Yankees will have stolen a game from Justin Verlander and injected a little life into what has been a very one-sided series. I don’t know about the players, but I think the emotional pick-me-up for fans would be pretty enormous. It’s easy to be (very) down on the club right now, but going into Comerica Park and stealing a game from Verlander would be a great way to get back into the series and remind everyone who finished the season with the best record in the league. Here are the lineups…

New York Yankees
LF Brett Gardner
RF Ichiro Suzuki
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Robinson Cano
DH Raul Ibanez
Russell Martin
3B Eric Chavez
CF Curtis Granderson
SS Eduardo Nunez

RHP Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23)

Detroit Tigers
CF Austin Jackson
LF Quintin Berry
3B Miguel Cabrera
1B Prince Fielder
DH Delmon Young
RF Andy Dirks
SS Jhonny Peralta
C  Alex Avila
2B Omar Infante

RHP Justin Verlander (17-8, 2.64)

It’s chilly in Detroit but that’s all. Classic playoff weather. Tonight’s game is scheduled to start a little after 8pm ET and can be seen on TBS. Enjoy.

Ticket Update: If you want to catch any game in this series, either in New York or Detroit, make sure you check out RAB Tickets for some sweet last minute deals.