The American League Championship Series got off to a rousing start last night before, ultimately, ending on a sour note. Tigers closer Jose Valverde continued his season long battle with the save, giving up a pair of 2-run homers and a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. A couple innings later, the Tigers were able to parlay an atrocious display of defense by Nick Swisher and some timely hits into a pair of 12th inning runs to escape with a 1-0 series lead. The game was particularly disastrous for New York because not only did they hand over home-field advantage, captain Derek Jeter was also lost for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken ankle.
The Yankee captain has been the heart and soul of the team this season, displaying the type of patience and winning pedigree associated with a man who’s been to the playoffs in 16 times in his 17 year career. Even as he broke his leg, Jeter had the nerve to keep his composure, shuffling the ball he fielded off to 2nd baseman Robinson Cano to prevent the Tigers’ Don Kelly from scoring on the play. That kind of effort and heads up play has been integral to the Yankees success over the past 17 seasons, and it will be sorely missed.
Many of his teammates and coaches were shellshocked at the prospect of playing without Jeter for the rest of the year, and I think that Raul Ibanez’s thoughts on the injury sum up the what the Yankee captain really brought to the team. “I always knew what a great player he was,” Ibañez said of competing against Jeter before this season, “but I didn’t know how big his heart was with what he was going through and still competing.” That toughness, that contribution to the team cannot be replaced, but this injury has put the Yankees in a bind. GM Brian Cashman said, “The job is to find a way over every obstacle,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “The way to honor Derek more than anything else — these guys know this — is to get the job done in his absence.” Can the Yankees get over this obstacle? That will be the question that more than likely determines their playoff fate.
Defensively the Yankees probably won’t see too much of a drop-off, at least with Nix in the lineup. The 30-year-old utility infielder was solid in his brief time at shortstop this season, displaying decent range and a solid ability at turning the double play. Jeter is very sure-handed with the glove but he doesn’t provide much range, so Nix might actually be an upgrade defensively. But on offense, Jeter’s presence will be sorely missed because Nix’s .243 batting average this year was actually a career-high, especially when you considere the fact the Yankee captain was a career .308 playoff hitter.
Jeter has been the driving force of the Yankee attack again this offseason, racking up a team-high 9 hits in 27 playoff at-bats thus far. Outside of the late inning heroics of Raul Ibanez, the surprising Mark Teixeira, and the always-consistent Ichiro, the New York offense has been disturbingly stale thus far. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson are each hitting .130 in the postseason. Alex Rodriguez has struck out 10 times so far. Robinson Cano has been even worse, getting on-base just 3 times in 29 plate appearances. The Tigers are going to make quick work of the Yankees if one of those hitters doesn’t step up to replace Jeter’s offense. His replacements at shortstop, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez, aren’t going to be held responsible for producing at the plate. The Yankees cavalcade of highly-paid talent will, and they need to start hitting.
Cano in particular needs to display more patience at the plate. He’s been anxious in every plate appearance and looks nothing like the hitter who entered the postseason hitting .648 in last 9 games of the regular season. I think he’s going to step his game up again with Jeter out. Cano is now the onfield leader of this Yankee team, a role I believe he will handle with skill and grace. Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson also need to be left alone in the lineup so they can get back to doing what they do best: driving the baseball. The common line in baseball is that when one player goes down, other around him have to pick up the slack. If New York can get any of their middle-of-the-order sluggers on a roll, it would go a long way toward picking up the slack.
Now, Nick Swisher on the other hand? His presence in the lineup is another story. Brett Gardner has quietly returned to action this postseason after missing all but 16 games of the regular season with an elbow injury. He had his first playoff at bat in the game last night, grounding out to first base in the 12th inning. Since Gardner’s game relies on speed rather than power, it may be a good idea to sub him in for the struggling Nick Swisher, who is now letting his poor play on offense carry over to the defensive side. Swisher badly misplayed the game-winning hit by Delmon Young, turning what should have been a line drive out into a crushing double.
Gardner is one of the best defenders in baseball and would give the Yankees some extra range in the outfield at worst, and could provide a nice, speedy spark on offense at best, something the Yankees could sincerely use right now. The team could use a big boost of energy right now, especially after losing the Captain, and Gardner could be just the player to do it. Beating the Tigers, who still have Justin Verlander waiting in the wings for 2 starts was going to be a tall task even with Jeter, now the level of difficulty has gone through the roof, and the Yankees are going to need all hands on deck if they want to survive.