Commentary

Yankees short on mental toughness

Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher actually sound excited to leave the Bronx behind

Updated: October 15, 2012, 12:54 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The "old" Yankee Stadium, the one across the street where Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle played and Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali fought, was famous for its reputation of being an intimidating place for opposing teams to play.

The "new" Yankee Stadium, where the Donald Trumps and Rudy Giulianis of the world are protected from the common folk by a moat and where thousands of seats go unoccupied even for playoff games, is developing a bit of a reputation, too.

For being an intimidating place for the home team to play.

I kid you not. The New York Yankees lost Game 2 of the American League Championship Series to the Detroit Tigers, 3-0, on a day in which they got another great starting pitching performance while their bats were good only as firewood.

[+] EnlargeYankees
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesThere's no place for the struggling Yankees to hide right now.

Now they trail the Tigers 0-2 and face Justin Verlander, the defending AL Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player, needing to win at least two of three to keep the dying embers of their October alive.

And they need to do it on the road.

Which is just fine with at least two prominent Yankees, who sounded as if they were auditioning for lead roles in "Escape From New York, Part II."

"Maybe a change of scenery will be good, a little refresher for our team," Alex Rodriguez said. "There's tremendous confidence and belief in this clubhouse, no matter how hostile the environment gets."

"To go through a stretch like this where it's kind of a negative attitude, a negative type setting, that's tough," Nick Swisher said. "But hey, that's part of the game. Rightfully so. There are a lot of expectations here and I guess when you don't get the job done, you're going to hear about it."

When Rodriguez talks about a "hostile environment" and Swisher refers to a "negative setting," they are referring to the same thing: the ballpark that is their home.

And when A-Rod talks about a "change of scenery," it means only one thing: Getting the heck out of dodge while the getting is good.

Both, along with Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, have been the target of relentless booing from the Yankee Stadium crowds during the first two games of the ALCS, and with very good reason: their performance.

In Sunday's game, those four went 2-for-14 with seven strikeouts. Throw in Jayson Nix, who followed A-Rod, Granderson and Swisher at the bottom of the lineup, and the final four spots in the batting order went 2-for-13 with eight K's.

And throw in Saturday night's 6-4 loss, and it only gets worse. A-Rod's single in the ninth inning "raised" his ALCS average to .143, and his overall postseason mark to .130, with an on-base percentage of .200.

Swisher is batting .250 in the ALCS, .154 overall, and his career-long futility in October has had the fans lying in the weeds for him, expecting the worst. On Sunday, they got it when, hitting with a runner on first in a one-run game, he struck out for the second time in the game against Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez.

A-Rod and Swisher are not the only two getting booed in the Yankees' lineup, nor are they the only two who deserve it. But they are the only two who made it obvious that the fan reaction is getting to them, and that they are actually looking forward to playing the next three playoff games on the road.

"It may start with a change of scenery," Rodriguez said. "We've been used to this type of hostile environment before, and having our backs against the wall but I'll tell you what, our heads are not going to go down."

Tell that to Swisher, whose interactive relationship with the fans in the right-field seats -- "Wassup, creatures?" -- has taken a hit over the past two games that seemed to leave the outfielder, who is in the last year of his contract, a bit shaken.

"It hurts," he said. "Sometimes I'm a sensitive guy and some of the things people say, they get under your skin a little bit."

It was obvious that the Swisher-Creatures relationship had taken a turn from the first-inning "roll call," which he generally acknowledges with a crisp quasi-military salute. (Although why he does it with his left hand I could never understand.) On Sunday, he flashed a dead fish of a salute that would have earned him some KP duty.

And he noticeably took his time returning to his position between innings, taking his warmup throws at the edge of the infield dirt, as far from the right-field stands as possible.

"Last night was pretty bad," he said. "A lot of people saying a lot of things that I've never heard before."

Swisher said fans blamed him for Derek Jeter's injury -- his misplay of Delmon Young's double in the 12th inning Saturday night directly preceded the ground ball on which Jeter broke his ankle -- and serenaded him on Sunday with several choruses of "Na-na-na-na, hey, hey, goodbye," a reference to his impending free agency.

"That's the last thing that I ever thought would be in this ballpark, that people would get on you that bad," Swisher said. "Especially your home, where your heart is, where you've been battling and grinding all year long. It's just frustrating, man. You never want to be in that spot. It's not like you're trying to go out there and do bad on purpose. It's just tough, man."

Swisher acts as if the people in the bleachers -- and inside the moat, for that matter -- are his friends and family, rather than people who have paid premium prices in the expectation of seeing premium performance. They have kept up their end of the bargain, and so far have gotten nothing for their money.

"As the game progresses, you're trying to go up there and get a hit," he said. "If you don't, people let you know about it. It's a tough spot. Hey man, I guess that's playing in New York."

That's something Swisher will not have to worry about much longer. But for a guy who considers himself a gamer, he certainly seems to be going out with a whimper.

It makes you wonder about the mental toughness of this team, or at least some of its key players, at a time when that toughness is really all the Yankees seem to have left.

Jeter, of course, has it in abundance. And so does Andy Pettitte, and some of the interlopers such as Raul Ibanez and Russell Martin and Rafael Soriano -- and especially Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched his heart out once again and got precisely zero run support.

The Yankees got a tough break when umpire Jeff Nelson blew a call at second base that would have ended the eighth inning without a Tigers run. But to hear Girardi use that as a reason to begin a rant on the need for instant replay -- something he was not in favor of when Phil Cuzzi called a clearly fair ball by Joe Mauer foul in a playoff game in 2009, or this past June when Dewayne Wise snatched credit for catching a popup he did not catch to help the Yankees beat the Nationals -- was nothing short of embarrassing.

The reason the Yankees lost Game 2 was because they could not score even a single run off Sanchez (who was 9-13 in the regular season) and ex-Yankee Phil Coke, with the highest-priced lineup in baseball history.

It was the same reason they lost Game 1, and two of the five games to the Baltimore Orioles. In seven postseason games, the Yankees have now gotten seven high-quality performances out of their starting pitchers -- and managed to win only three of those games.

Even hitting coach Kevin Long, who has been unable to get his hitters to make the necessary adjustments to bust out of their funks, lent some credence to the idea that the fans may be in some of the Yankees' heads.

"There's a lot of guys getting booed, and certainly that's not a fun feeling, so maybe getting on the road will help us out," Long said. "I'm not going to use that as the answer, but who knows?""

And who knows if, heading to Detroit with its less-hostile environment and super-nasty starting pitching, the Yankees will win a game in this series?

"We haven't scored a run in a long time, so I'm right there with 'em," Rodriguez said of the angry Yankee Stadium fans. "You can't blame them. I wish you could, but you can't blame our fans. We got to go out there and score runs. We have the ability and a lineup that's equipped to score a lot of runs and we got shut down today."

It's a lesson you'd think A-Rod and Swisher would have learned by now. When the Yankees get shut down, the fans do anything but shut up.

And if that is too much for them to deal with, it probably doesn't matter which team they play for, or who they play in front of.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Nova Pain
    Ivan Nova gave up four homers, injured his elbow, and things only got worse.
  • Lost In Queens
    Curtis Granderson went 0-for-5, Jose Valverde gave up a homer -- same old story.
  • Fossil Fuel
    Paul Pierce was the classic "truth" in a Game 1 win.
  • Things Could Get Messy
    Forcing Geno Smith into an open competition threatens to stunt his growth as a QB.
  • Buying Into The Blueprint
    The Rangers look to relive the game plan from their Game 1 win.

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES