In '12, Yanks' Series dreams dashed by cold bats
New York weathers injuries to several key players, but comes up short in ALCS
NEW YORK -- For better or worse, the 2012 Yankees will be remembered as a team that had its lineup go completely cold at the wrong time, and their disappointing showing in the postseason was certainly the subject of much head-scratching.
It's only fair to remember that long before the Yanks were convincingly swept by the Tigers for the American League pennant, New York overcame a crushing rash of injuries to win 95 games and hold off a feisty Orioles club for the division title.
That doesn't necessarily excuse how the season wrapped up, nor should it -- the Yankees have set their standard at the very top, and the fact is that they've only achieved their ultimate goal of a World Series title once in the last 12 seasons.
"With all the things that went wrong last year, we still won the division and had home-field advantage in the playoffs," first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "Unfortunately, we had a rough ALCS and you can throw out 10 different scenarios of why that happened. Fact is, we didn't play well enough."
Then again, if you knew coming into the season that the Yankees were going to weather serious injuries to Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Brett Gardner and Michael Pineda -- well, maybe 95 wins and an ALCS berth wouldn't sound so bad.
"The World Series is hard to win," manager Joe Girardi said. "You can have all the pieces in place, and you can go to Spring Training thinking you have the team to win, and a lot of times it doesn't happen."
Girardi became the fourth Yankees manager to lead the team to four consecutive postseason appearances, joining Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre, and his Yanks held at least a share of first place in the AL East for 114 consecutive days from June 12 through the end of the season.
Built to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's hitter-friendly dimensions, the Yankees lived and died by the long ball. They slugged a franchise-record 245 homers to surpass the club mark set in '09, including a Major League-leading 10 grand slams.
Curtis Granderson's 43 homers paced the team, Derek Jeter showed there was plenty of life in his smooth swing with a Major League-leading 216 hits, and Robinson Cano was a regular-season monster who garnered some AL MVP Award consideration.
The Yankees also enjoyed terrific pitching during the postseason, a factor that carried over from the regular season. They had three starters -- Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes -- win at least 15 games, and Rafael Soriano solidified a bullpen reeling from the season-ending loss of Rivera in early May to secure 42 saves in 46 opportunities.
It was a performance that, ultimately, produced plenty of applause, but finished with another statement from Hal Steinbrenner's office that included the word "disappointment."
As the Yanks try to address their weaknesses in an division that seems to be getting tougher every season, here is one final look back at the highs and lows of 2012, recapped by the top five storylines of the calendar year.
5. With no Mo, Soriano answers the call
The unthinkable happened for the Yankees on May 3, as Rivera lay writhing in agony on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium, his season cut short by a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. Rivera had enjoyed baiting reporters with vague hints at retirement coming into the season, but this certainly wasn't the way he anticipated going out.
Somehow, the Yankees seemed prepared for a scenario under which Rivera would pitch just 8 1/3 innings. They were fortunate to have a closer-in-waiting with Soriano, who was superb stepping into Rivera's role, punctuating each of his 42 saves by violently untucking his jersey from his uniform pants.
With Rivera vowing to return to closing in 2013, the Yankees and Soriano will likely part ways, with Soriano having opted out of his contract and in search of a larger deal elsewhere. The Yanks should be thankful for his services, however: as Jeter said, there's little chance they would have been able to get to the postseason without him.
4. Ichiro finds a new home
The afternoon of July 22 was a surreal one for the Yankees, as Ichiro Suzuki switched sides of Seattle's Safeco Field and tried on a set of Yanks road grays for size. Ichiro had approached the Mariners for a trade earlier in the season, recognizing that he no longer fit in with a much younger club.
The Yankees had a desire for a speedy outfielder with Gardner lost to an elbow injury for most of the season, but Ichiro also seemed to need the Yankees. Surrounded by experienced veterans and a winning atmosphere, Ichiro raised his game and batted .322 with five homers, 27 RBIs and 21 steals in 67 games the rest of the way, helping the Yanks lock up the division.
Ichiro quickly became a fan favorite in the Bronx, and all of those quick-selling T-shirts should have some more shelf life in them. Ichiro reportedly accepted less money to stay in the Bronx, working with the Yankees on a new two-year, $13 million contract.
3. The Captain keeps charging
It's unfortunate that the last on-field image of Jeter in 2012 was of him hobbling off with a wrecked left ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS, needing to lean on both Girardi and head athletic trainer Steve Donohue for support just to get to the dugout. Jeter was playing through pain for an extended period, quite literally pushing his ankle until it simply could take no more.
We may never know how much Jeter was actually suffering, because his performance refused to show it. At age 38, Jeter seemed just as good as ever, leading the big leagues with 216 hits and pushing his all-time total to 3,304: continuing to fuel speculation that maybe -- just maybe? -- Pete Rose's all-time hits record of 4,256 could be within reach.
Jeter, as you'd expect, shrugged off those thoughts of individual accomplishments and remained focused on trying to win another World Series to his season's bitter end. There are major challenges of rehab and recovery ahead as Jeter heads to '13, but the Yankees expect their shortstop to be right where he belongs by Opening Day.
2. Another AL East title, but it wasn't easy
For the 13th time since 1996 and the 18th time in franchise history, the Yankees celebrated standing as champions of the AL East. But despite holding a 10-game lead on July 18, it took until the season's final day for the Yanks to officially hold off an Orioles club that refused to fade under manager Buck Showalter's guidance.
The tight AL East race forced the Yankees to play with a must-win mentality for most of September, making every series feel like a playoff series. It was in early September that the Yanks shuttered the doors of the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, booting reporters out of the room as Rodriguez took center stage and urged his teammates to take "small bites" and play with a tight, October-like mentality.
Few would have anticipated the team's .188 batting average in the playoffs, but during the charge to the postseason, they pointed to their veteran leadership and experience as a major factor in preventing them from wilting under the pressure of the sprint to the finish line.
1. Winter arrives on a chilly Thursday in Detroit
The ending always seems to be the most important part of any Yankees season, and for the third straight year, it wrapped up without a World Series championship. The Yanks went out with a whimper in the ALCS, failing to score in 36 of 39 innings and never holding a lead. With their season on the line in Game 4, they watched Sabathia get knocked out in the fourth inning and managed just two hits before winter arrived.
They did edge Baltimore club in a hard-fought AL Division Series that needed the full five games to be decided, highlighted in part by Raul Ibanez's amazing postseason, as he became the first player in Major League history to slug three home runs in the ninth inning or later in a single postseason.
Ibanez found those opportunities to succeed, of course, because of A-Rod's mighty struggles. Rodriguez finished the postseason 3-for-25 (.120), including 0-for-18 against right-handed pitching. Though the Yankees eventually found a reasonable explanation by learning Rodriguez's left hip was damaged and needed surgery, there was plenty of drama as Girardi was forced to pinch-hit for and bench his highest-paid player in the games that counted the most.
A-Rod may have made the biggest headlines, but Cano fizzled after a red-hot finish to his season, setting a new Major League record for postseason futility with an 0-for-29 streak against Orioles and Tigers pitching. Granderson and Nick Swisher were also among those who contributed little to the Yanks' attack with the season on the line, forcing Girardi to also find spots on the bench for them.
It was absolutely not the ending that the Yankees envisioned, not when they were racking up a grand total of 804 regular-season runs, second in the Majors only to the Rangers' 808. But the last 11 games of the season are the most difficult to win, and so the Yanks have little choice but to regroup and try once again to finish the job in '13.