Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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It Takes At Least Two To Complete A Collapse

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Not only does the collapsing team have to come completely apart and allow their pursuer(s) to catch and pass them, but the pursuer(s) have to do their part by winning a few games.

And the Rays, Angels and Cardinals have made the lives of the Red Sox and Braves easier by losing repeatedly.

The Rays lost 3 of 4 games to the Yankees (and only won that one game because the Yankees were still in a division-clinching celebratory stupor and didn’t show up until they were down 13-0); the Rays also lost to the Blue Jays last night.

The Angels lost 2 of 3 to the Orioles before winning 2 of 3 from the Blue Jays; they lost to the woeful Athletics last night. (Maybe the Angels had gone—as a group—to see Moneyball and thought they were playing a team that was, y’know, good and the product of a, y’know, genius.)

The Cardinals suffered a defeat to the Mets on Thursday that, despite the “brave” (see what I did there?) face being put up by manager Tony LaRussa, can only be called devastating. If you blow a 6-2 ninth inning lead to a team like the Mets, you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. The Cardinals lost 5-1 to the Cubs last night.

If a team is making a late and desperate run to the playoffs, they can’t be losing games with their aces on the mound and that’s exactly what happened to all three teams with David Price, Jered Weaver and Chris Carpenter all starting; Price and Weaver lost; Carpenter went 7 innings, allowed one run and got a no-decision.

The 1964 Cardinals were 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies with 13 games to play and went 10-3 as the Phillies, with 12 left to play, went 2-10. The Cardinals won just as much as the Phillies lost.

The 2007 Phillies were 7 games behind the Mets on September 12th with 17 left to play and went 13-4 to win the division by one game.

The Mets blew it, but the Phillies also did their part by winning their games.

The Red Sox were rained out against the Yankees last night and, unless they lose all the rest of their games, are going to the playoffs.

The Braves beat the Nationals and are now leading in the Wild Card by 3 with 5 to play; I don’t think even Fredi Gonzalez can manage his way out of that.

So both the Red Sox and Braves are going to the playoffs through little recent work of their own.

It’s not their fault.

It just is.

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Red Sox Need A Sense Of Urgency And A Few Wins, Not Panic

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I understand what David Ortiz was doing with his “it’s time to panic” headline grabber.

Ortiz is a far better psychologist and leader than his lovable Big Papi persona would indicate and he’s playing bad cop to manager Terry Francona‘s good cop.

Francona will maintain his composure and preach a sense of urgency without the aforementioned panic.

With a predominately veteran team, the influence on either will be negligible.

The bottom line is this: if this current construction of the Red Sox were what they started the season with, they’d be picked for fourth place in the AL East.

Kevin Youkilis is out; Josh Beckett is out (but is expected back soon); Clay Buchholz is out; J.D. Drew is out. Their rotation behind Jon Lester has a fourth starter with an ERA over 6 in John Lackey; Tim Wakefield, a beloved veteran whose quest for his 200th career win has reached satirical proportions and who’s being asked to do far more than his 44-year-old body—knuckleball aside—is capable of; a talented journeyman for whom it’s about time we accept that this is what he is in Andrew Miller; and a rookie, Kyle Weiland.

The 2011 Red Sox are eerily similar to the 2007 Mets in more ways than this slow-torture collapse and fans repeatedly saying (not asking, saying), “is this really happening”. There’s an air of doom surrounding them that no amount of cajoling, yelling and eloquent speechmaking can extinguish. They’re locked in a vacancy in which their only path to the playoffs is going to be the Wild Card; and they have a young Rays team with nothing to lose pursuing them.

Those Mets were undone in large part by playing the Washington Nationals managed by former Mets coach Manny Acta; these Red Sox are beginning a series against a team managed by their former pitching coach John Farrell; much like Acta, don’t think Farrell is going to do the Red Sox any favors this week; if anything, he’s going to tell his players that this is their playoffs and if they want to contend next season they’re going to have to get used to playing in games where the world is watching.

And the world is watching the Red Sox now to see if they come apart.

They still have time to pull it together.

The question is, will they?

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Blunt Group Therapy For Red Sox And Brewers Fans

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It won’t help, but I know what Red Sox and Brewers fans are going through.

You’re counting the days and games; scouring the schedules of your team and your competitors; calculating the likelihood and magic numbers for a playoff spot you once felt was guaranteed; examining the pitching matchups and acting as if nothing’s wrong when you’re worried, worried, worried.

Each loss; each injury; each day that passes and another piece of the lead is whittled away, you say, “just let us make the playoffs; I don’t care if we lose in the first round; I don’t want to deal with the embarrassment of being called a ‘choker’ and hearing the obnoxious Yankees/Cardinals fans and their smug self-satisfaction at the misery of others”.

I know.

I experienced it with the Mets in 2007 and 2008.

Of course, 2007 was far worse.

And the parallels are unmistakable.

Like the Red Sox of 2011, the 2007 Mets had high expectations after a disappointing prior season. The Mets were short-handed in the starting rotation relying on aging and declining veterans Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez and inexperienced and tired from a long-season Oliver Perez and John Maine; the Red Sox have lost Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz to injuries and John Lackey has been, um…not good.

The hype surrounding this Red Sox team was exemplified by the idiotic (before the season, during and maybe after) lusty fan piece on NESN by Eric Ortiz proclaiming the Red Sox as a direct challenger to the 1927 Yankees.

After reading that, a large segment of people wanted the Red Sox to lose.

The 2011 Rays, like the 2007 Phillies, have nothing to lose and are playing with the freewheeling “no one expects us to win anyway” attitude that allows them to relax. The Rays are younger and healthier.

Is it likely that the Rays catch the Red Sox? No. But examining their schedules with the Rays having 3 games in Boston next week and 7 games remaining with the Yankees, there’s cause for concern. If the Yankees have the division locked up, is it so farfetched to see the Yankees shun going all out to win in those 3 games in Tampa against the Rays to screw the Red Sox?

The perfect storm is in place because the Red Sox are playing the Yankees in 3 games at Yankee Stadium directly before they travel to play the Rays.

It’s possible that, to make the playoffs, the Red Sox will be rooting for the Yankees.

That’s not where they want to be.

With the Brewers, their arrogance is engendering loathing throughout baseball.

Yesterday I defended Nyjer Morgan for his Tony Plush persona because it’s nothing to get into a twist about—who cares what Morgan says and does? But the one thing a team does not want to do is inspire other teams to want to beat them more and ruin their playoff chances—the 2007 Mets did that with the Marlins and it cost them. And teams like the Brewers—who’ve won nothing—certainly don’t want to make a veteran team with a megastar like Albert Pujols angry.

The Phillies have a right to be arrogant; the Brewers don’t.

The Cardinals are now 6 games behind the Brewers.

Many lower-level teams are playing out the string and trying to get the season over with; for the most part, they want to win, but don’t care all that much which other teams make the playoffs; if they’re made to care because of taunting and narcissism, it’s a motivation that was unnecessary and self-destructive.

Ron Darling said something interesting during the Mets game yesterday. In essence, players who hit 4-5 more homers in September are doing so because they’re looking to pad their stats by the end of the season. This isn’t strategic nor is it done with the interests of team goals in mind. They’re guessing at pitches and hacking. If a player does this against the Cardinals and not the Brewers, that’s not good for the Brewers.

After today, the Brewers remaining schedule is relatively weak; the Cardinals have a few tough games with the Phillies; the Mets are looking to finish above .500; and the Cubs would dearly love to knock out the Cardinals.

Of the two teams that are in danger of a September swoon, the Red Sox are far more vulnerable than the Brewers; if either happens to join the 2007 Mets and 1964 Phillies as members of the exclusive club of inexplicable chokes, they have no one to blame but themselves.

And it could happen.

I know.

Because I saw it happen with the Mets.

Twice.

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The Cardinals’ Last Stand

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Having swept three straight from the Brewers at Miller Park, the Cardinals have kept themselves alive in the NL Central race. They’re still down 7 1/2 games with 25 to play so a comeback would be bordering on the miraculous, but they’re still around—and that was the first step.

This weekend is supremely important for the Cardinals to—at the very least—stay 7 1/2 games behind. The Brewers are in Houston for a 3 game series with the Astros while the Cardinals are going home to play the Reds.

On Monday, the Brewers go to St. Louis for 3 games.

If the Cardinals can cut the deficit another game or two, Monday becomes very, very interesting and important. Let’s say the Cardinals manage to get within 5 games after their home series with the Brewers. The Brewers are then going to Philadelphia to play the Phillies; the Cardinals have the Braves coming to town.

Without providing schedules for each team down the stretch (their opponents are mostly the same), the Cardinals have to make their move now.

It’s hard to see the Brewers stumbling in a 2007 Mets-type way and being caught or passed by the Cardinals. Those Mets were drastically flawed in the starting rotation with Oliver Perez and John Maine both having been coaxed to unexpected 15 win seasons by Rick Peterson and Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez were shells of what they once were; this Brewers club with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf has legitimate starting pitching.

You can also throw the 2008 Mets into that mix. With Johan Santana their starting pitching was better than it was in the previous year, but the bullpen was relying on journeyman Luis Ayala to close after Billy Wagner went down with Tommy John surgery; the Brewers have two legitimate closers in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.

2007 Mets manager Willie Randolph panicked and 2008 manager Jerry Manuel was outgunned; I don’t know how Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke is going to react if his club is pressed by Tony LaRussa‘s Cardinals over the last two weeks.

But the Cardinals crawled back into striking distance with the sweep—similar to the way the Phillies did against the Mets (twice) in the final 5 weeks of the 2007 season.

The last thing the Brewers want to do is let the Cardinals think they have a chance.

That’s what the Cardinals are thinking now.

And if things break a certain way, in seven days time they might have more than a chance. They might have a race; a race the Brewers neither wanted, needed nor expected.

The Brewers have to take care of business by next Thursday or they could have a problem on their hands.

A big one.

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