In loss to Astros, some Yankees look ready to join Jeter in retirement
The Yankees still have not led in a postseason game since Derek Jeter sprawled in the dirt three years ago, screaming in pain from a broken ankle.
A season-ending 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros in the winner-take-all AL wild-card game on Tuesday night should not have been a surprise. The 2015 Yankees overachieved just by reaching the postseason.
A seven-game lead in the AL East in late July caused the Yankees to think they could be a great team. That was forgotten during a slide that ended with an 85-75 record, a six-game deficit behind Toronto and a second-place finish.
"The wheels were flying off as the season went on," general manager Brian Cashman said outside the quiet clubhouse. "The longer it went, for some reason, the worse we started to get. Obviously, we lost some key guys, but also some guys just did not play the way they are capable of playing."
Manager Joe Girardi started two rookies in his infield during what turned out to be the Yankees’ fifth straight postseason loss: first baseman Greg Bird and second baseman Rob Refsynder, who combined for exactly 200 career at-bats coming in.
"When we left spring training, it wasn’t what I expected," Girardi said.
Following Jeter’s retirement last fall, the Yankees arrived at spring training with uncertainty, fought through a summer of anxiety and injury and ended their season in misery, a great distance from their first World Series title since 2009.
"Maybe we were out of gas. Maybe we were too banged up," injured first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "We just kind of hit a wall at the end of the year."
On a night when Yankee Stadium had the red-white-and-blue bunting out for its loudest crowd this season, New York managed just three singles in six innings against Dallas Keuchel, who looked like a bearded lumberjack cutting down the Yankees’ offense. New York didn’t get any hits off the Astros’ bullpen.
Masahiro Tanaka allowed five hits in five innings, but two were solo homers to Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez. Dellin Betances gave up an RBI single to Jose Altuve in the seventh.
Coming off six straight losing seasons, Houston had more spark and spunk in its first postseason appearance since 2005. By the eighth inning, fans in the crowd of 50,113 started booing the home team’s lacking batters.
New York reached the playoffs after a rare two-year absence, but in some ways the deforestation of the last great era Yankees’ progresses without pause. Among the players swept by Detroit in the 2012 AL Championship Series, only two appeared against the Astros: center fielder Brett Gardner and designated hitter Alex Rodriguez. Teixeira hobbled onto the field with crutches for the pregame introductions, unable to play since he fouled a pitch off his right shin on Aug, 17.
Instead of being available out of the bullpen, former ace CC Sabathia checked into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic Monday.
Brought in last year at a cost of $153 million as part of the renovation, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was dropped from the starting lineup following a second-half slump. Gardner, kept in at Ellsbury’s expense, struck out three times against Keuchel.
Rodriguez, who revived in the first half following his one-year drug suspension, seemed like he was zapped by Kryptonite around the time of his 40th birthday in late July.
"It’s been an incredibly fun year overall," he said. Just feel grateful for the opportunity to come back and re-establish myself."
There is reason for hope among the younger Yankees. Didi Gregorius settled in as Jeter’s successor at shortstop, getting better each month at the plate and in the field. Luis Severino, a 21-year-old right-hander, joined the rotation in August and showed promise, as did Bird and Refsnyder.
New York’s most conspicuous flaw is its starting rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova all ailed at times. Yankees starters averaged 5.72 innings per outing, according to STATS, 21st among the 30 major league teams and a reason Betances and Justin Wilson deteriorated as late-inning relievers during the second half.
"Physically it’s not a very healthy group in there right now at the end of the season. Guys are beat up," Girardi said. "But they never stopped playing. They never stopped playing hard."
David Price, who has helped led Toronto into the playoffs for the first time since 1993, is eligible for free agency and would slot in at the top of the rotation. But the left-hander is 30 and would come at the high price of a nine-figure contract that likely will lock the Yankees into his declining years. Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto also are on the high-cost, quick-fix free-agent market.
Change rarely occurs quickly in baseball, and rebuilding while maintaining a winning record is especially tricky. There are more touted prospects in the farm system now than during the previous dozen years, but the next title still seems a ways away.
"Obviously we’re not good enough right now," Cashman said, "because we’re not playing. So it’s all that matters."
Notes: The losing streak ties the Yankees’ second-longest in postseason play, according to STATS. They lost eight in a row from 1921-23, around a Game 2 tie in 1922.