- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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Granted, had Brent Lillibridge -- a 27-year-old reserve outfielder for the Chicago White Sox who had been in the game for all of about 10 minutes -- not made two game-saving plays in the bottom of the ninth-inning Tuesday night, we would likely be celebrating a rousing Yankee victory rather than lamenting a disheartening 3-2 loss.
We would be talking up Ivan Nova, who ventured further into a major league game than he had ever gone before, and downplaying Rafael Soriano, who took another step toward the purgatory of Ed Whitson-hood.
We would be praising Alex Rodriguez or Robinson Cano, either of whom easily could have been the hero if not for Lillibridge, rather than pondering how a lineup as pricey and high-powered as the Yankees' could have managed just two runs and seven hits off a White Sox team that limped into town with an 8-14 record and had been shut out in back-to-back games.
If Lillibridge doesn't make his two heart-stopping catches -- the first while slamming hard into the right-field fence to snag A-Rod's opposite-field bullet, the second diving on his belly to pick off Cano's sinking liner, both of which looked to the very end like game-winning doubles -- then the real story of what happened the past two days at Yankee Stadium gets overshadowed, if not obscured.
Because what happened on the last two plays of the Tuesday night's game makes it all too easy to forget about what had happened in the previous 17 innings.
Yes, Soriano melted down again, and yes, Gavin Floyd threw a gem at the Yankees the way his teammate, Phil Humber, had the night before. Those are the easy explanations for why the Yankees have dropped the first two games of this four-game series.
But it covers up a bigger problem: Once again, this high-powered offense, which outscored every team in baseball last season and leads the majors in home runs and slugging percentage through the first month of this season, has stalled.
Somehow, the $200 million collection that includes future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Rodriguez as well as Cano, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Eric Chavez, succeeded in making Humber and Floyd look like Gibson and Seaver.
"I would love to say this offense was going to get 10- 12 hits every night, but there's not an offense in America that's going to do that,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "There's going to be times when you don't swing the bats as well as others. Sometimes it'll make sense, sometimes it won't make sense. But I'll take our chances with this offense on a daily basis.''
Over the long haul, Girardi is right, of course. Any lineup with Jeter at its top, Rodriguez, Cano and Teixeira at its heart and Brett Gardner at the bottom is going to hit and score runs.
But mark these past two days firmly in the "doesn't make sense'' column. On Monday, it was Humber, with all of eight major league starts spread out over six major-league seasons carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning. On Tuesday, it was Floyd, a so-so right-hander (48-43, 4.51 for his career, 1-1, 4.45 vs. the Yankees) still out there to start the ninth inning, nursing a one-run lead and looking very much like he was about to throw a complete game.
And aside from a home run by Cano in the second inning and another by Brett Gardner in the fifth -- only two other Yankees hits, one an infield dribbler by Derek Jeter -- to mar his night's work.
"I think you got to give those guys a lot of credit,'' Rodriguez said. "The one thing these guys have done very well is throw a high percentage of soft pitches and stylish curveballs to us, and they've kept us off-balance for two days.''
So is that the secret to neutralizing the Bronx Bombers?
"I'm not telling you what the secret is,'' a grinning Rodriguez said.
But it is no secret that the Yankees always seem to have trouble with pitchers they have never seen before (Humber) and with pitchers who throw anything but dead red (Humber and Floyd).
And for all their power this season -- their two home runs Tuesday night ran their league-leading total to 38 in 20 games -- they have had trouble building runs, or scoring any way other than by the long ball.
They had all of six baserunners Monday night and outside of the home runs, only four on Tuesday, two in the ninth inning. Part of the reason is that Gardner, who looked like the prototypical leadoff hitter in spring training, has been the proverbial automatic out in the regular season.
Despite his home run -- he now has two in 62 at-bats -- Gardner remains mired at .145. Even worse, his on- base percentage is a pathetic .197. Obviously, a player whose game relies so much on speed can't make much of an impact when he is never on base.
But Gardner is not alone. Nick Swisher, who struck out three times against Floyd, is oh-fer his past 14 with six Ks. His average is down to .217 and he has yet to hit a home run. Teixeira, who has been incredibly streaky, is at .250. He went 0-for-6 the past two nights, including three strikeouts and a back-breaking double play in the ninth inning Monday night. In the two games against the White Sox, Rodriguez has gone 1-for-8 with three Ks and that dramatic line out Tuesday night.
And Jorge Posada, who did not play Tuesday, is still struggling to find his stroke as a DH, hitting .145, with six of his nine hits being home runs.
Clearly, it is a powerful offense, but it's often not very efficient. And sometimes, not very efficiently managed, as when Girardi called upon Curtis Granderson, among the league leaders with six home runs, to lay down a bunt after Jeter led off the ninth with an infield hit.
Granderson got the bunt down and moved the runner along, but burned a precious out in the process. Lillibridge, of course, took care of the other two.
"What are you gonna do?'' Swisher said. "This stuff happens. According to my calendar, we're still in April. There's a lot more baseball left to be played. Either way, man, it was a crazy way to end that game. You gotta give credit where credit is due. That guy made a great play. And you got to be damned sure you make that play because if not, the game's over.''
Rodriguez seconded that opinion, calling Lillibridge's catch on Cano "a courageous play." Girardi clung to the belief that the Yankees had actually won the game but ran into some incredible bad luck at the very end.
"That kid was the difference in the game,'' he said.
In their way, all three were right. Brent Lillibridge was the immediate reason why the Yankees lost Tuesday night.
But his heroics also obscure an underlying problem for which the Yankees seem yet to have found a solution.
1dInterview by Buster Olney
22hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com