MLB Playoffs: Don’t Bury The Yankees Just Yet

Before we get into a recap of Detroit’s Game 3 win in the American League Championship Series last night over New York, let’s be clear on one thing—the Yankees are not dead. Yes, I know they’re in a 3-0 hole in games. Yes, I know their offense shows zero signs of life. But just hear me out.

If anyone knows that a 3-0 deficit can be overcome it’s the Yankees, being the only team in the history of baseball to blow such a lead. Throughout the MLB playoffs, I’ve allowed my pedigree as a Red Sox fan to push my luck on historical references that would get the dysfunctional Sox inserted into the October baseball discussion. But in this case, the historical analogy is obvious and important.

It’s not just that the 2004 Red Sox showed winning four in a row can happen. They showed it can happen when some good pitching matchups are coming your way. The ’04 Sox needed one miracle—they needed a slumping Derek Lowe to stop the bleeding in Game 4.  They got it, then Mariano Rivera inexplicably walked the leadoff batter in the ninth, then Dave Roberts stole second and the rest was history. After that Boston trotted out Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling the next two games, and before you knew it was a seventh game in which all the pressure was on the Yankees.

Consider what New York has ahead. C.C. Sabathia gets the ball tonight and the big fella has been every bit as dominant as Justin Verlander has been this October. Even if you think the 2012 Yankees are frauds, as ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor wrote this morning, you have to think they should win tonight.

Then tomorrow it’s Andy Pettite facing Doug Fister. The Tiger starter was great in Game 1, but Pettite was extremely good too. Is it really that unthinkable that the Yankees win a postseason game with Andy Pettite on the mound?

If that happens then all bets are off. The series goes back to New York. Even Detroit’s great insurance policy—Verlander on full rest for a Game 7—wouldn’t be the same big edge it appeared at the start of the series. When a series that starts 3-0 gets to Game 7 all the pressure is on the team blowing the lead.

As unbelievable as it sounds, if we’re still playing baseball on Sunday in the ALCS, the Yankees would be playing a home game with the pressure on the visiting team. Who knows what happens then.

Furthermore, the events of last night—the adventure Detroit reliever Phil Coke turned the ninth inning into—show us just how small the margin of error is in this series. Coke gave up two hits, had the tying run at second and ran Raul Ibanez to a full count before finally getting the strikeout to end the game. All of these games are close and the Detroit bullpen still doesn’t inspire confidence.

Finally let’s come to the New York starting pitching. I’m going to ask this—if the Yankees had lost the early games of this series by scores like 5-4, 7-5 and 8-7, would everyone be crying that they’re frauds? I don’t think so. People focus on hitting at the expense of pitching and the fact remains that in every single postseason game this year, New York has gotten a high-quality outing from its starting pitcher. Every single game has been close.

Sure, A-Rod and Swisher are in the tank on the bench. Robinson Cano is an epic slump.  But Sabathia, Pettite and Hiroki Kuroda are all locked in and it’s these three who will define whether the Yankees have a chance to win the next three games.

Am I saying New York will do it? No, because anyone who actually predicted such would be doing it for shock value. I’m saying the same thing a friend of mine told me on a Sunday morning in October in 2004 when I was writing off the Red Sox season—if you win tonight, who knows what happens. The ’04 Red Sox didn’t have to worry about the equivalent of a rested Verlander at the end of the comeback trail, but nor did they have a rested Sabathia to start it.

Let’s just keep a cork in the champagne bottles for now. This has nothing to do with buying into Yankee mythology. This is just looking at pitching matchups, the closeness of games and Detroit’s bullpen issues and saying this is a series that could have a momentum shift in it if New York is allowed off the mat and makes it back to the Bronx.

Last night’s game seemed to fly by and Detroit missed a lot of opportunities to put the game away. The biggest came in the sixth when they had the bases loaded and one out, with Miguel Cabrera at the plate. The Triple Crown winner hit the ball hard-a bullet grounder to third. But Eric Chavez, playing in A-Rod’s stead—made a great backhand and started  a double-play that kept the score 2-0 and allowed the Yanks to make it interesting in the ninth.

Similar defense was not shown by Curtis Granderson on another Cabrera hit. In this case, a long fly ball tailing to the right-field side of Granderson looked playable.  I wish I had seen the play live with the full camera view, because it appeared the centerfielder got an extremely poor break on the ball and it landed for an RBI double. With Granderson looking the worst of the Yankee hitters, he needs to play defense and this hardly helped his cause.

Finally let’s come to Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Why didn’t he bring in A-Rod to pinch-hit for Ibanez in the ninth inning? Say what you will about A-Rod’s slump and Ibanez’ heroics so far in October. That was when Ibanez hit against right-handed pitchers. Here it was the lefty Coke on the mound and all that was needed was a single to tie the game. That Rodriguez didn’t even get the chance to try it suggests either that Girardi has lost his mind or there’s something even more wrong in A-Rod’s relationship to the team than has been visible so far. Take your own guess as to what it might be.

The MLB playoffs return to doubleheader action today. We start in St. Louis at 4 PM ET with a great pitching matchup as Matt Cain meets Kyle Lohse. Then it’s Sabathia trying to save the Yankee season against Tiger lefty Max Scherzer in prime-time.