Andy Pettitte shattered his ankle, a comebacker ripping into his shin bone and
putting him on the sidelines for weeks as his return from retirement
was lifting the Yankees, showing his reliable left arm hadn't faded a
Derek Jeter fell Saturday night, his left ankle giving out as he chased a grounder, the bone cracking as he tumbled into the Yankee Stadium dirt.
The three remaining members of the Core Four of Yankees who won five World Series titles and made countless other postseason appearances together have all been taken down this season. It doesn't look like old age was what snapped the ligament and broke the bones — just playing the game did the trick here.
But the message is not subtle.
Try as they may, the Yankees who have carried this team since 1996 with heroic at-bats and timely pitches are being ushered away by something that was always on their side on the way to five World Series wins: luck.
Rivera has been watching this postseason from the dugout, and now Jeter will join him, the crack in his left ankle something that even the captain won't be allowed to play through.
The injury was strange-looking — at first it appeared Jeter just tripped over his own feet. But Jeter couldn't and wouldn't move after he went down, and that's when the Yankees knew that, after a season full of tempting fate, the body blow had come.
There would be no more late-inning home runs, no more lucky bounces.
The Yankees are not destined to take it all this year, and they were told so emphatically Saturday night as Jeter rested on manager Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donahue's shoulders, his feet dangling helplessly below him as he was helped off the field.
Really, the Yankees had no business getting as far as they did this season. While they were definitely the hottest team at the All-Star break, they have showed their age since July, with the booming home runs and crisp pitching replaced by nagging injuries and a complete inability to score runners.
New York's shortcomings were the worst coming into September, as the Baltimore Orioles challenged hard for the American League East. The Yankees held onto their lead, winning the division crown on the final day, but they never looked dominant. The team that had lost Rivera and young pitcher Michael Pineda in the spring but still bounced back couldn't sustain its success — not with stopgaps on the back end of the rotation, and with 30-somethings filling out the batting order. The Yankees were a good team, but they fell from great in September.
Still, there's something about October that gets the Yankees performing so much like the Yankees, and New York found the little bit of magic it needed to knock off the O's in their division series. The Yankees were horrible at the plate throughout the five games, but good pitching and a few well-placed Raul Ibanez home runs provided the luck to give New York the edge in an otherwise even matchup. With the series turning toward Detroit, the Yankees had to have felt they had a chance, with the matchup scary but good fortune appearing to be ready to carry them again.
Saturday night followed the script once more. The Yankees were out of the game, down 4-0 and having no business saying they even competed. The weak bats were even weaker against Detroit pitching, with New York loading the bases three times but failing to scratch across a run. Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher once again choked magnificently (1-for-18 altogether), with just Ibanez's psychotically clutch ability pulling the Yankees back into it.
The little extra boost of luck the Yankees have needed all season to push their underperforming roster to the next level was there in home runs by Ibanez and Ichiro Suzuki. But then New York dawdled. The Yankees did not finish the job in the bottom of the ninth, nor the bottom of the 10th, or the 11th.
And in the top of the 12th, fate had enough, breaking Jeter's ankle. The injury sunk the Yankees' season, postseason hopes and any delusional thinking that a team that is hitting .216 and has left 47 men on base so far in the playoffs could find its way to the World Series.
Losing Jeter is a huge blow to the Yankees both figuratively — as their captain, face and tone-setter — and emotionally — as his calm, never-give-up, upbeat attitude not only rubs off in the clubhouse but also translates into strong results on the field.
But Jeter was also providing just about all of New York's offense. He was batting .333 in this postseason, not to mention the track record of making it happen every October that he brought into this year (on Saturday night, he collected his 200th postseason hit — by far the record). He had two hits apiece in the first four games against the Orioles (.421), a time when the team had just 33 hits altogether.
In a playoff stretch where Yankees fans are cheering when players actually get some wood on the ball (the Yankees racked up 47 strikeouts over five games coming into Saturday), Jeter was doing one better — hitting the ball, carrying the team and finding a way to score.
But the Yankees can't win it all by resting just on Jeter, whose solid footing finally gave way Saturday. It was the left ankle where the bone finally cracked — the ankle he had pounded mercilessly with foul tips in the Baltimore series, the ankle he may have injured months before but shrugged off, insisting he play until the job was done.
If Jeter hadn't played through those injuries, his ankle may have been strong enough to hold up under an easy sidestep in a 12th-inning play that should have never happened had the Yankees done their job.
But if Jeter hadn't played through those injuries, the Yankees likely would not have made it this far. It took every ounce from the players who could contribute to carry a team that never quite had its power all season long, and that overachieving effort appeared to finally run out Saturday night.
Pettitte is still in the dugout, his ankle healed and his competitor's spirit as sharp as ever. Both Rivera and Jeter will return next season, age being nothing to them as they will their bodies back into form for another run. Pettitte, Rivera and Jeter ensure that the Yankees can't be counted out for championships in the future — not until the old guard has officially saluted and left the game.
But this year, baseball has had the final word. No matter how much they want it, this is not the Yankees' year to win.
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