DETROIT -- Justin Verlander was borderline brilliant, extending his scoreless streak to 23 innings, throwing 132 pitches strong, never lifting his cleat off the other team’s throat. But this game and this series isn’t about what you expected to happen.
No, just when you thought the one-car crash that is the New York Yankees couldn’t get more gnarly, this pileup at roadside was worth another twist of the neck Tuesday.
The fifth-greatest all-time home run hitter was benched, against the hottest pitcher in baseball, in a game the Yankees had to have. The decision may have been the right one, really the only one, and yet that doesn’t fully capture how truly astonishing it was. Alex Rodriguez was pulled in Game 3 for Eric Chavez, who was 0-for-11 in the postseason. All A-Rod could do was watch, or toss baseballs to female fans if he wished. He was absolutely not going to play in a game that tightened in the ninth inning. Not even in a pinch, so to speak.
The lack of New York manager Joe Girardi’s faith in Rodriguez could be measured in the ninth, with Verlander gone, the Yankees down only a run with men on first and second, and two outs. Wasn’t this precisely the situation that begged for A-Rod? Isn’t this why they gave him monopoly money? Certainly he was rested, having already been benched once this postseason.
Girardi didn’t even look down the bench. He didn’t think about giving Rodriguez one last chance to save face and clean up a three-for-23 postseason. Girardi went ahead with Raul Ibanez, and if Girardi dared to use a guy with 647 career homers over a 40-year-old journeyman, the manager’s sanity would’ve been questioned. Imagine that.
Even more telling is who was waiting on deck, if Ibanez hit safely: Nick Swisher. Not A-Rod.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” said Verlander.
Ibanez subsequently struck out swinging, Coke threw a fist pump, Tiger Stadium threw a party after the 2-1 win, and you know what they threw at their TV sets in the Bronx that night? Nothing. For the most part, fans knew Girardi made the right call.
“Ibanez has been one of our best hitters down the stretch here,” said Girardi. “I felt great about having him up there.”
That’s all you need to know, that as surprisingly refreshing as Ibanez has been the last week, he’s suddenly the go-to guy on a team with the highest payroll in baseball. That’s why the Yankees’ spiral is more fascinating than the Tigers being up 3-0 in the AL Championship Series. That won’t go down well in Detroit, where a city and team might feel slighted, but so be it. Baseball will have another week to hype the Tigers. The Yankees may not last another day.
New York’s demolition has been something to behold, one part crummy luck (Derek Jeter’s broken ankle), one part just plain crummy. Joining Rodriguez on the pine Tuesday was Swisher, a liability in the field and at the plate this series, and if Girardi had a decent backup second baseman then Robinson “0-for-29” Cano would’ve sat between them.
This ballclub is without Jeter, A-Rod, Cano, Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Mariano Rivera, and only two of them have a solid excuse for not showing up. The elephant in the pinstripes is A-Rod, though, who may never see another trip to the plate this series, or any way to live this down.
When the mighty fall, it’s always a spectacle, the crash-and-burn more astonishing than the success. Especially when it involves the most polarizing player in the game -- certainly the most discussed. The Yankees still owe Rodriguez five years and $114 million, which means his future in the Bronx is a lot more perplexing and worrisome than the present.
This won’t end well. It can’t. A-Rod has shown he’s unable to stay healthy, and the .300/40/120 seasons are behind him now. The Yankees gave him a record contract partly because of the value he’d bring to the franchise as baseball’s all-time home run hitter, but at this rate, will A-Rod actually get there? Will the Yankees be forced to swallow most if not every dollar of that suddenly poisonous deal?
The Yankees must also be concerned about whether Girardi and Rodriguez will ever be on the same page after this. A-Rod’s relationship with Joe Torre went downhill fast after Torre dropped him to eighth against the Tigers in the ’06 playoffs. Clearly, by benching A-Rod, Girardi is siding with the sentiment in the Yankee clubhouse -- because a manager doesn’t make such a move without taking the temperature of his players and management.
Which means the Yankees must rebuild A-Rod’s confidence over what will be a longer winter than usual. And that will be quite a construction project, given the stakes, given the man and his fragility, and given what is happening right now. Or rather, not happening.
Officially, the Yankees are down 0-3 to the Tigers, but it feels a lot lower than that. The wreckage you see could be beyond fixing in this series and you seriously wonder if these big spenders finally found something their money can’t buy: a little more time.