NEW YORK – Down the vast subterranean tunnel from the opponents’ clubhouse, Josh Hamilton(notes) shook his head early Wednesday morning. The Yankees, his eyes wondered, what could they have been thinking?
“I don’t know if they underestimated us or took us for granted,” the Texas Rangers outfielder said. “We came to play.”
It was, in the stillness of the late hour, the only thing that could explain such a startling collapse. The New York Yankees were made for this month. A roster that costs $206 million isn’t built simply to snatch wild-card berths. It is assembled to swallow teams like the Rangers whole, to devour them the way they did in the first game when Texas' bullpen crumbled in the face of its first great postseason pressure.
But baseball has a strange way of humbling giants, a fact one of the newest Yankees – midsummer acquisition Lance Berkman(notes) – pointed out as he stood in the silent, nearly vacant home clubhouse following this 10-3 loss that put New York hours from elimination.
“We are built for this,” he said. “We have some horses.”
Only the horses have been still. One by one, the feared New York hitters, the ones making in the tens of millions of dollars primarily to slug their way through these October nights, are instead trickling ground balls, swinging and missing, hitting popups to center field.
Mark Teixeira(notes), the big free-agent prize of 2009, felt a pop in his hamstring as he lunged toward first in hopes of avoiding a double play. He was carried away from the field and the postseason. Not that the Yankees will miss his bat. In four games against the Rangers, the mighty Teixeira failed to get a hit.
Sometimes this happens. Sometimes good lineups grow cold. That’s baseball. But the purpose of tearing down the old Yankee Stadium across the street, of building this towering edifice on the edge of the No. 4 train’s elevated tracks and filling it with restaurants that serve extravagant meals on fine white china is to justify the $206 million payroll. And in turn, the $206 million payroll is supposed to deliver in October. This is how it worked last year, the first in the new stadium. This is how it worked in the first round this postseason against Minnesota. And this is how it was supposed to work this series when Nolan Ryan’s $55 million bargain team crossed the Harlem River.
Instead, Texas has thundered through them three straight games, the last two here in the stadium that was supposed to intimidate the Rangers.
Staring at a season that might soon end short of the World Series, Berkman gazed across the lonely clubhouse and pursed his lips.
“It’s pitching,” he finally said. “Pitching. Pitching. Pitching. I don’t think any answer is simpler than that. The postseason is all pitching. It’s been that way for 150 years.”
And the Rangers’ pitching staff – which combined makes less money than two of New York’s starters, CC Sabathia(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes) – has dominated the Yankees lineup. Thirty-nine Yankees have struck out in 36 innings. New York has just 26 hits and 11 runs over four games.
As they slowly sulked into their clubhouse after the game, each Yankees hitter talked of opportunity barely missed, of balls that should have been hits that somehow didn’t fall. They suggested the Rangers have had a world of great fortune with all their little pop flies that just dropped into the outfield for hits. This, of course, ignores the Rangers’ nine doubles and seven home runs.
“They’ve played better than us,” Jeter said. “They pitched better and they hit better.”
Mostly, the Yankees look old. They might be paid millions more and can boast of all these wondrous postseason feats that are supposed to be the difference in a series against a team like Texas. But the Rangers are playing with a zeal no one expected after they fell apart in Game 1. Burnett, who is being paid $16 million a year to make one start every seven-game series, went one batter too long in the sixth inning and turned to watch his pitch to Bengie Molina(notes) fly into the left-field seats for the home run that broke the game open.
“They are nervous,” Berkman said of the Rangers’ bullpen, the one that faltered in Game 1 but has come back to shut down New York ever since. “You can see it in their command. It’s not perfect. They are walking people. Everyone is dealing with cotton mouth.”
And yet those fragile Rangers relievers have managed to endure in a way the New York bullpen has not. Apparently, cotton mouth can win pennants, too.
As Tuesday night became Wednesday morning, it was clear to see the wealthy do not have faith. The Yankees slogged through the final outs in front of empty seats. The fans let their expensive seats slap shut, filled the aisles as if this was the evening rush at Pennsylvania Station and abandoned the team that seems to have forgotten its purpose.
The end is drawing near. And $206 million can’t always buy a World Series.