DETROIT -- The New York Yankees have devolved into a loose assembly of aging, flailing ballplayers with no business competing for a World Series ring. Over three American League Championship Series games, they have reduced the number on their manager's jersey, 28, to someone's idea of a hoax.
In vain pursuit of the franchise's 28th championship, Joe Girardi pleaded with his hitters to make an adjustment, any adjustment, and even broke from a no-exceptions policy of never ridiculing his players in public when he wailed, "They are not going to put it on a tee for us."
And so how did the Yankees respond against Justin Verlander, a formidable pitcher but not an unbeatable one? By setting an impatient tone in the early innings Tuesday and by managing all of three Game 3 hits off him, including two singles from 38-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who must be wondering why he ever agreed to gamble his own elusive title chase on this hopeless cause.
The Yankees didn't rouse from their series-long slumber until the ninth inning, when Eduardo Nunez fought off an 0-2 count, fought Verlander like his older, not-so-wiser teammates hadn't all night, and sent his ninth pitch -- a curveball -- whistling over the left-field wall.
Verlander recorded one more out before he was done at 132 pitches. Mark Teixeira would single off Phil Coke, and Robinson Cano would do the same to end his biblical 0-for-29 drought, and suddenly it felt like the Yankees were an honest-to-God big league team again. Before Nunez went deep in the ninth, his team had played 29 innings in this series and had failed to score in 28 of them.
In fact, the Yanks hadn't come close to scoring in this ALCS since Alex Rodriguez reportedly courted some female fans in Game 1.
But Raul Ibanez did something he hadn't in a while -- he lost a heated duel in the clutch -- and that was that. The Yankees were left to face the same impossible 3-0 deficit the 2004 Boston Red Sox faced before those Red Sox clawed their way into a forever corner of baseball lore at their longtime tormentors' expense.
The 2012 Yankees don't have a prayer of matching that feat, not with a lineup of zombies staggering toward the finish line of a season that probably feels a lot like 1964, the last year of prolonged pinstriped greatness before the dark ages set in.
"We dug ourselves a big hole," Teixeira said.
Does anyone really believe they can dig their way out without the injured Derek Jeter and the benched and emasculated A-Rod, two all-time greats good for a combined 6,205 hits?
Jeter's fractured ankle only further exposed a fractured team. Girardi was so overwhelmed by the Yankees' flaws, by their noncompetitive at-bats, that he failed to see Jeter's absence as another reason to play the only Yank who matched the captain's profile, Rodriguez, never mind A-Rod's history of homering off Detroit's ace.
So Girardi made the mistake of trotting out Eric Chavez, whose 0-for-11 postseason was about to become an 0-for-14 postseason Tuesday night, when A-Rod's replacement made like a little leaguer on a short-hopper that ultimately led to Detroit's second run. The winning run.
"I got caught in between," Chavez said. "It wasn't a tough ball where I couldn't make a decision. I had to make a decision, and it was just the wrong one."
If nobody knows for sure that Rodriguez would have made the play, everybody knows for sure that his replacement didn't.
A-Rod, Nick Swisher and Jayson Nix were benched in favor of Chavez (really bad move), Brett Gardner (good move) and Nunez (really good move). "I think it was the right thing to do," Chavez said of Girardi's moves. "You've got to mix it up. You can't continue to get buried."
Somehow, some way, the Yankees are all but dead and buried despite some terrific pitching. Phil Hughes went down with a bad back in the fourth, two batters after Delmon Young three-ironed a 1-2 curveball over the wall, and the Yankees' bullpen didn't blink like Chavez and Curtis Granderson, who followed the third baseman's error by misplaying Miguel Cabrera's deep fly into the decisive double.
Jim Leyland, winning manager, said Girardi "did an unbelievable job" handling his staff in the wake of Hughes' premature exit, and honestly, Leyland sounded the same way he sounded in 2006, when he beat Joe Torre in the first round, and in 2011, when he beat Girardi in the first round.
Now Leyland is about to beat Girardi in the second round, the question a matter of how, not if. When the Yankees' manager addressed the notion of panicking the other day, he said he "would be really concerned if we all of a sudden took the field and every player ran out of the stadium. Now that's panic."
After Hughes was lifted, Girardi's players ran off the field. They did return, if not in spirit.
A tough guy in short sleeves on a chilly night, Verlander needed only three strikeouts over 8 1/3 innings, dominating without dominating. "He let us hit it tonight," Teixeira said.
But the Yankees worked him for only nine pitches in the first inning and 11 in the second, allowing the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner to save his heater for when it mattered most. Verlander blew away Cano with a 98 mph fastball with one on and two out in the seventh.
And what of those adjustments in the batter's box Girardi begged for?
"It's tough to work on things in the playoffs," Teixeira said. "There's no building for tomorrow. There's no building for the next month."
The night's punctuating image was that of Ibanez, home run hero, striking out in the rain. Now the Yankees are in danger of being swept in a best-of-seven series for the first time since they got Big Red Machine-d in 1976.
That team was on the verge of winning two titles. This team?
Rodriguez spent the night in a gray hooded sweat jacket, chewing sunflower seeds in the dugout, and he could be finished as a Yankee. The dynastic holdovers -- Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte -- all suffered serious leg injuries in their advanced age, and the team's best in-his-prime player, Cano, is a room-temperature star lacking that unbreakable Jeter/Rivera/Pettitte drive.
Even with two wild cards there to cushion the fall, this could be the beginning of the end of the Yankees as we knew them. CC Sabathia, one of the few Yanks cut from the dynasty makers' mold, surely will put up a fight Wednesday night, but what's the point?
Girardi can't bench everyone, although it sure seems like he's tried. He'll put nine New York Yankees out there for Game 4, and then hope like heck they don't run off the field.