If not for Raul Ibañez, the Yankees’ season might be over by now.
Let that thought marinate for a moment, as you contemplate Friday’s winner-take-all Game 5 in the Bronx.
Sure, the Yankees are supposed to beat the Orioles in the deciding game of this American League Division Series. They are at home. They have the October ghosts. CC Sabathia, with eight postseason victories, is rested and ready. Jason Hammel will pitch for the other guys, in only his fourth major league start over the past three months.
But there is justifiable concern among the pinstriped legions, following a 2-1 loss in Game 4. The Yankees are only 4-5 in the House That George Built over the past three postseasons, and their once-feared lineup — the one that slugged more homers than any other in the majors this year — has been held to a meager .216 batting average in these playoffs.
In a huge sign of urgency, manager Joe Girardi announced Friday morning that he was benching struggling star Alex Rodriguez in favor of Eric Chavez at third and Ibanez at DH.
The Yankees and Orioles played for 13 innings Thursday night — and early Friday morning — which meant the home team was supposed to spray champagne and anoint a new legend. The Yankees had won their past 10 extra-inning postseason home games, according to STATS LLC. The past three teams in grey to triumph here, in overtime, during the postseason: the ’98 Cleveland Indians, ’64 St. Louis Cardinals and ’52 Brooklyn Dodgers.
“You feel as though you’re going to win — especially here,” Derek Jeter said in the quiet clubhouse. But implicit in that expectation is, you know, scoring when it matters. Outside of Ibañez — he of the Game 4 double-bailout — the Yankees aren’t doing that. Twelve position players combined to take 44 at-bats for New York in Game 4. Only two resulted in extra-base hits. Each was a double (Jayson Nix, Jeter). Neither came after the sixth inning.
So, no, this isn’t all the fault of Rodriguez.
Yes, Girardi pinch-hit for him. Again. (More on that later.) But A-Rod actually recorded a hit Thursday, albeit a two-hop single to left. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Curtis Granderson wish they managed that much. Their collective performance: 0 for 20. Mark Teixeira is a good fit in the No. 3 hole — he reached base four times — but the hitters behind him proved profoundly inept against a better-than-advertised Baltimore staff.
How backward has the Yankees’ offense become? Granderson led the team in home runs (43) and RBI (106). Last week, there was talk that he might break up Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown by surpassing his home run total. Thursday, Granderson batted eighth — the lineup spot that prompted a tabloid frenzy when Joe Torre relegated Rodriguez there in 2006. This time, the Girardi-Granderson decision barely registered amid the A-Rod fixation.
Maybe that was because the move was justified. Granderson is hitting .063 in the ALDS.
Even more shocking than the demotion was what occurred in the fifth inning: After Martin drew a leadoff walk, Granderson, the man with the most home runs in the major leagues over the past two seasons, squared around to attempt a sacrifice. Granderson said afterward that he was “not at all” surprised when Girardi put the bunt on.
Still, Granderson hadn’t executed a sac bunt since April 29. The rust was evident. He fouled off his first two tries and flailed at a Joe Saunders slider for the second of his three strikeouts. Boos followed.
“Hey, that’s just part of it,” said Granderson, who has struck out nine times in the series — tied with A-Rod for the team high. “Fans expect a lot out of you. When you don’t get it done, they’re not going to cheer.”
Another damning indictment of the Yankees’ lineup can be found in the numbers associated with the team that won Game 4: The Orioles managed two baserunners over 25 plate appearances, between Nate McLouth’s fifth-inning homer and Manny Machado’s 13th-inning double. In effect, they mustered two hits in eight innings. And the Yankees couldn’t beat them.
Girardi’s starting lineup included three left-handed batters and two switch hitters, all of whom could aim at Yankee Stadium’s right-field porch in the late innings. Girardi deployed two lefty pinch hitters, Ibañez and Chavez, against a Baltimore bullpen that expended its last left-hander, Brain Matusz, in the eighth. The Orioles asked right-handed pitchers to record the last 17 outs. The big hit never came.
Turns out, hoping for Ibañez to launch a pinch-hit homer is an unsustainable offensive strategy in October. (Ibañez replaced Nix in the ninth — to thunderous approval from a crowd of 49,307 — but grounded out to first.) Girardi let A-Rod hack away until the 13th, when he sent out Chavez in his place against closer Jim Johnson. It was the right move: Chavez, with a .908 OPS against right-handers this year, worked a steely at-bat before lining to third for the final out.
The man who hit for A-Rod in Game 3 landed on the front page of the Post and Daily News and was the talk of baseball for a day. The man who hit for A-Rod in Game 4 had three reporters at his locker afterward.
“To be honest, they’ve done a good job with us the whole series,” Chavez said. “We haven’t really clicked offensively, and we’ve only got one game to get it going. That’s the one thing when you play a team a lot: They know your weaknesses. They know how to pitch you. They’ve really shut us down.
“It’s not (Alex). It’s all of us. Besides (Jeter) and Ibañez, we’re kind of scattering hits. We’ve got to get it going, you know?”