NEW YORK -- It seems that people are paying more attention to what the Yankees aren't doing than to what the Tigers are doing, which is somewhat unfair. After all, the Tigers are 2-0 on the road in the ALCS against two excellent pitchers, including a remarkable comeback-from-a-comeback on Saturday and a solid 3-0 victory behind a sterling Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. The Yankees' didn't just lose -- the Tigers won. They are pitching well, they are hitting enough, and perhaps most remarkably of all they have been playing good defense. They deserve credit.
Still. What the Yankees aren't doing is pretty remarkable.
Just to recap, the Yankees had one of the strongest offenses in baseball over the course of the long season. Over the course of a postseason week, almost all of their best sluggers have slumped simultaneously. Alex Rodriguez, of course, but also Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher. Hiroki Kuroda, pitching on short rest for the first time in his American career, was brilliant, perfect through five, striking out 11 and walking no one, and he pitched into the eighth inning, leaving only after a terrible call by umpire Jeff Nelson (no, not that Jeff Nelson) at second base extended the frame. Omar Infante was clearly tagged out by Cano before reaching the bag, but there was no convincing Nelson, of course, though Joe Girardi was ejected trying.
Fans were booing the stunningly anemic offense, and the stadium felt slack and unhappy -- and considerably less than full. Afterward, Swisher told Marc Carig of Newsday that he felt the Bleacher Creatures had turned on him. One win could change everything but, at the end of play on Sunday, the Yankees looked like a car speeding toward a nasty crash.
After the game, Nelson admitted that he had been wrong -- a rarity among umpires -- and Girardi came out for a change in the system. "In this day and age where we have instant replay available to us, it's got to change," he said. "These guys are under tremendous amounts of pressure … and it takes more time to argue and get upset than to get the call right. Too much is at stake."
As Girardi went on to acknowledge, however, the Yankees cannot really blame their loss on that call, however lousy, when they only amassed four hits and seven total base runners, and plated none of them. The Yankees have seemed at times like they were about to break out of it, just one key hit away, a bloop or an error even, just some kind of break, but so far, no.
There's not much to ask the Yankees after a game like Sunday's, really. If they knew why they weren't hitting or how to start hitting again, well, they'd fix it. Kevin Long has been widely respected as New York's hitting coach, praised by players and colleagues, but he could offer little more than "it is what it is" (it could hardly be otherwise) and "we are who we are" (rule out body-switching alien lizards as the cause of the offensive woes). It's not Long's fault. He said the team would "keep working, keep grinding," and that's about all they can do.
Cano was one of the best hitters in the league in 2012, and he didn't just lose his talent or technique overnight. He did set an unfortunate record, though: According to ESPN Stats & Info, Cano's 25 at-bats without a hit actually qualify as the longest such streak in a single postseason in MLB history.
"Baseball stinks sometimes," said Mark Teixeira. "There's hot streaks and cold streaks in baseball, and if you don't have it, you don't have it."
Baseball slumps are mysterious things. They happen to almost every player at some point or another, though the length and severity might vary. A lot of it is simply luck -- there is so, so much luck involved in baseball, especially in the small sample size of any given game or week or series. The difference between an out and a hit can be inches on the field, which in turn are caused by changes in a swing or a delivery so minute as to be, for all practical purposes, undetectable and uncontrollable.
Luck doesn't make for gripping analysis. "Why do you suppose this player is scuffling this week, Paid Expert?" "Luck, mostly." "How do you explain the success of this previously unheralded pitcher, Television Authority?" "Well, probably luck, on the whole." Even when it's the right answer, "luck" is not a satisfying one.
It's not as simple as that, either. Sometimes a pitcher struggles because of his mechanics, which a coach and video can help him fix. Sometimes a batter develops a hitch in his swing that can be smoothed out, and presto, he's back in business. Physical and mental approaches in baseball have dozens of moving parts, and a glitch in any one of them can affect a player's performance.
A lot of times, though, slumps simply come and go no matter what a batter tries or how many adjustments he makes. Some of it is no doubt mental, perhaps quite a bit of it, though that can't be quantified.
Still, a lot of it is luck.
"Sometimes you don't get the breaks," said Teixeira, and then, thinking of Derek Jeter and his fractured ankle, "no pun intended."
Before the game on Saturday, Girardi was asked about the dearth of hitting and whether he thought the Yankees were "pressing." He cited a bunch of different reasons for the slumps: Yes on the pressing ("I think in the postseason at times players will try too hard. I think you see that -- what it means to us, you think about what you went through for 225 days to get to that point and you sacrificed a lot. … And I think players want it so bad, they can try too hard sometimes"), but he also cited the generally high quality of postseason pitching, and the cooler weather.
He did not mention luck, but then managers rarely do. It sounds like ducking responsibility or lack of respect for the opposing team.
And the Tigers do reserve respect for what they've accomplished. The Yankees may have a car-wreck feel to them at the moment, but Detroit is the telephone pole they're wrapped around.
"There's a lot of baseball still left to play," Granderson said. "Anything and everything can happen. Expect the unexpected."
He is right, of course, and what else can he say?
Still it's a bit jarring that, at this point, the Yankees hitting well would qualify as unexpected.