Yankees' offensive futility continues

DETROIT -- New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi has done everything in the American League Championship Series but pick his lineup out of a hat -- or Donald Trump's hair -- and had almost nothing to show for it.

Nick Swisher has been moved down the batting order, and subsequently mothballed. An injured Derek Jeter gave way to Jayson Nix, who yielded the starting shortstop job to Eduardo Nunez for a night. Brett Gardner, who was so rusty the mere thought of him starting a postseason game was summarily dismissed by Girardi just a few days ago, suddenly re-appeared in the lineup Tuesday night against the best pitcher in baseball.

And Alex Rodriguez … well … we simply don't have the time or the inclination here to discussed all the twists and turns his professional life has taken since the start of postseason play 10 days ago.

Through all the intrigue, hurt feelings and grasping at straws, it's come to this: The Yankees can't hit, and they're running out of explanations and time.

A New York team that ranked second in the majors with 804 runs scored during the regular season added to its run of October futility Tuesday when Justin Verlander and Phil Coke combined on a five-hitter to lead Detroit to a 2-1 victory and a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Yankees have reached the point where a lengthy at-bat or a hard foul ball is cause for euphoria, so it was downright shocking when Nunez hit a solo home run in the ninth inning to break up Verlander's shutout. The Yankees threw a scare into the Tigers with back-to-back singles by Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano against Coke, who has rented the closer's job while Jose Valverde tries to escape from the witness protection program.

But Raul Ibanez struck out on a 3-2 curveball to end the game, and the Yankees were left to ponder some depressing numbers: They're hitting .182 against the Tigers, and they've been held scoreless in 28 of 30 innings in this series. The Yankees' offensive output is even more depressing given their lack of success against Baltimore's Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez & Co. in the Division Series.

In the clubhouse after the game, the Yankees mouthed the standard homilies about the task in front of them. They expressed confidence that staff ace CC Sabathia will bring his A-game to the park in Game 4 Wednesday, and vowed to do their level best to break out against Max Scherzer. All he did this year was rank first among big league starters with 11.08 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He has great stuff, no question,'' said Yankees catcher Russell Martin. "But he doesn't have the same type of stuff as Verlander. I don't think anybody does.''

It's hard to say the Yankees had a strategy against Verlander, given that he tends to dictate the action with his power repertoire. They worked him to full counts several times in the early innings, but they weren't exactly confident in driving up his pitch count and getting into the soft underbelly of the Detroit bullpen.

"We all know he's a guy who goes 130 or 140 [pitches],'' Cano said. "We just wanted to go out there and score. Never mind the pitch count.''

Verlander stayed in the game, kept recording fly-ball outs and cranked his fastball up to 97-98 mph when he really needed it in the seventh and eighth innings. But even he has his limits. When Verlander's pitch count hit 132, manager Jim Leyland went to Coke for the final two outs. The move set up an interesting sequence of events that showed just how far Rodriguez is from relevant at this point in the season.

Just when you think things have bottomed out for A-Rod, he finds a new nadir. Monday's New York Post featured an embarrassing story about A-Rod flirting with two female fans at Yankee Stadium and asking for their phone numbers while his teammates were concentrating on beating the Tigers in the ALCS opener. Girardi, understandably, declined comment when asked about the story during his pregame news conference.

Rodriguez is so deep in spectator mode right now, he might have to buy a ticket for admission to Game 4. That was borne out in the ninth inning of Game 3. After Coke gave up consecutive singles to Teixeira and Cano, Girardi had a choice: Let Ibanez hit against the lefty, or replace him with A-Rod and force Leyland to counter with right-hander Joaquin Benoit.

True, Ibanez has come up with some incredibly big home runs for the Yankees this year. But he also hit .197 (12-for-61) with no home runs against lefties this season, so he wasn't exactly in his comfort zone against Coke.

Still, Girardi preferred that matchup over A-Rod versus Benoit, who has a 5.52 ERA since the All-Star break. Girardi dismissed a question about pinch-hitting A-Rod without a second thought. It was as if someone asked if he might enjoy moonlighting as the Naked Cowboy's Times Square replacement on an off day.

"Ibanez has been one of our best hitters down the stretch here,'' Girardi said. And that was that.

Ibanez fouled off some tough pitches from Coke before striking out to end the game, and the Yankees were forced to take solace in small favors. They struck out only three times in 8 1/3 innings against Verlander, compared to 14 whiffs against him in eight innings in early August. And Cano ended an 0-for-29 futility streak with an opposite-field single off Coke in the ninth. Cano insists that the hitless streak hasn't weighed on him and that he comes to the park every day with a positive attitude. But it can't hurt him to hit the "reset'' button and show up to work Wednesday with a clear head.

The most important math is decidedly in Detroit's favor. Since the advent of the best-of-seven format in 1985, four teams have gone down 3-0 in the American League Championship Series. The 2004 Boston Red Sox came back to eliminate the Yankees and win the World Series. The 1988 and 1990 Red Sox and 2006 Athletics were all swept in four games.

"It's definitely tough for us as a ballclub right now, but everything can turn around in one inning or one swing of the bat,'' Ibanez said. "I've seen it happen. You've all seen it happen. Tomorrow we're going to fight.''

In the absence of something more tangible, cautious optimism and wishful thinking will have to suffice. The Yankees can fight all they want. It's not going to matter if they can't hit.