Will it be four and no more for ALCS?

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
10:30
AM ET
CC Sabathia William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireCC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees to try to extend the ALCS to Game 5.
DETROIT -- Down three games to none, facing a better rotation in its own park backed by a lineup built around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, how hopeless does the task confronting the Yankees seem?

As tough as it will be for them to get back to the Bronx, it seems as though they may be no more likely to return to New York with a live shot than they will with their dignity intact. Consider Phil Coke's postgame comment about his opponents: “These guys are a great ballclub. They’re scrappy, and they’re built to win, and we’re just matching them.”

The Yankees ... scrappy? When, in the history of the English language, or just American vernacular, has that ever been a word you associate with the Yankees? The next thing you know, we'll have to endure listening to Joe Girardi talk about how his team is just lucky to be here, and they're taking it one day at a time.

One pitcher's off-the-cuff remark aside, there's still at least one more game to play. If the Yankees are to take solace in anything going into Game 4 on Wednesday night, it might have to begin and end with the matchup on the mound, because they have CC Sabathia facing Max Scherzer in an elimination game.

In 2012, Sabathia was 3-0 against the Tigers, holding them to .238/.289/.405. So that's fairly promising, unless you want to start worrying about postseason-edition Delmon Young's Yankee-killing prowess showing up yet again. Given Sabathia's willingness to pitch around Miggy in the past -- walking him eight times, three times intentionally in 38 at-bats, having also surrendered a pair of homers and two doubles -- the prospect of a Young versus Sabathia matchup with men on could be the fulcrum upon which the game's outcome pivots.

Jim Leyland will no doubt try to expand the Tigers' scoring opportunities by mixing and matching with his lineup card. Avisail Garcia should be in right, for example, fulfilling his half of the late-developing platoon with Quintin Berry. Should the Tigers also start Gerald Laird instead of Alex Avila behind the plate? While Leyland generally tried spotting Laird for Avila against lefties, you might wonder why given Laird's feeble .204/.275/.347 line against southpaws this season. But Laird has a good career clip against Sabathia, hitting .417/.500/.625 in 28 plate appearances, while Avila is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. In a microcosm, these are choices that reflect Leyland's flexibility with his lineup. Lineup changes during the ALCS without any drama? Who does that? The team up three games to none.

In the other half of the game, at least on paper the Yankees' lineup would seem perfectly set up to exploit Scherzer's huge platoon split. This year, he has held right-handed batters to .201/.244/.343, while lefties hit him for .292/.366/.465, including a walk rate of more than 10 percent. It's worth noting that during his late-season run of seven quality starts before getting slowed down with shoulder trouble, Scherzer never had to see a lineup that leaned as heavily to the left as the Yankees' normal starting nine: six lefty bats, which goes up to seven if Girardi decides to have Alex Rodriguez keep him company in the dugout again and start Eric Chavez at third base.

Set against that, though, is the combination of the Yankees' absolute futility at bat in this series and this postseason. Girardi's panic-stations Game 3 lineup didn't achieve anything against Justin Verlander, and the Yankees' collective career line against Scherzer is a thoroughly woeful .177/.266/.282. So even if Girardi tries stacking the deck with seven bats from the left side against Scherzer by starting Chavez, he's got a lineup that's almost as punchless all of the time against him as it has been during the rest of the postseason.

However, there is the other issue Scherzer will have to overcome to become the latest Tigers' rotation stalwart turned October hero -- health. If the shoulder's OK, that's great, but how great, and how long before he tires? Add to that the ankle injury suffered during Detroit's dog pile to celebrate the division series win, and whether the Yankees struggle or not, this seems to cue up an opportunity for the Tigers' bullpen to make an extended appearance.

Certainly, that puts the spotlight back on Coke after he closed out each of the Tigers' past two victories. After Game 3, Coke hardly sounded like the fire-breathing closer, saying of his game-ending whiff of Raul Ibanez, “Alex called slider, 3-and-2, gotta make it count, and I threw it as a hard as I could, luckily he swung as hard as he could and didn’t hit it.”

Admittedly, that he got to do it against Ibanez, who had homered against him in the 2009 World Series for the Phillies when Coke was a Yankee, surely that was worth some strutting? Not so much. “He’s killing everybody; my hat’s off to him. He’s done things that nobody’s ever done in the game of baseball. He did take me deep in the World Series in ’09, about 460 to the gap if I recall correctly, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to put all that behind me.”

Coke doesn't exactly have a handle on his being the closer, even if he's closing, saying, “I didn’t know I was going to finish it. I thought that I might have a couple of lefties, and then maybe [Joaquin Benoit] was coming in for [Mark] Teixeira, but as soon as I saw that there wasn’t anybody was going to come out to talk to me, I was like, ‘all right cool, let’s roll.’”

So much for the necessity of a closer -- or any reliever -- needing to know his role, beyond a responsibility for getting people out. But the other thing you can take from that comment is that Coke wasn't looking for Jose Valverde to take his place, but Benoit. That says a bit about where Valverde is, whatever noncommittal "let's see how he feels” comments Insider made for his benefit. Come the ninth, with a one-run lead, the Tigers weren't looking for Papa Grande to bail them out, not even out of a sense of polite inclusiveness.

There's something very Mitch Williams circa 1993 about seeing “established” closer Valverde surrender leads and his job in the middle of a postseason. That year, the Phillies managed to survive Williams' combustibility in the NLCS, only to see him surrender history to Joe Carter in the World Series. But even to get that far, the Phillies had gotten surprise relief help from journeyman Roger Mason, not unlike how Leyland has had to place his faith in Coke now.

For Tigers fans' sakes, you can hope for a happier ending for Coke and Valverde, but first there's a fourth game to win at the Yankees' expense. If the Tigers' bullpen can finish what Scherzer will start, that may not have to wait until Thursday, let alone a trip back to New York.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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