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New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez #13 watches from

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez #13 watches from the dugout after he struck out with the bases loaded. (Oct. 6, 2011) Photo Credit: John Dunn

After Alex Rodriguez swung through the final pitch of the Yankees' season, after Tigers catcher Alex Avila raised his arms in triumph and closer Jose Valverde danced the dance of the victorious, all that was left at Yankee Stadium Thursday night was the pain of defeat and one huge question:

Are the Yankees on the decline? Let's review the facts:

They won three rounds in the 2009 postseason, including the World Series.

They won one round in 2010 before losing to the Rangers in the ALCS.

They bowed out in the first round in 2011 -- despite having home-field advantage against a Tigers team that wasn't able to use its ace, Justin Verlander, in Game 5 because of rain during the first game of the series.

Doesn't that sound like a downward trend?

"Obviously, this is a terrible day for us," a somber Joe Girardi said after Detroit's 3-2 win in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. "But we got beat."

They got beat not by certain AL Cy Young winner and possible MVP Verlander but by Doug Fister. For a big-money lineup filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, that's just not acceptable. The Yankees went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position. They left 11 men on base. Yes, Derek Jeter almost hit a two-run home run to right in the eighth, but it was caught at the wall.

"A hit here and hit there, and this is a different series," Girardi said in a classic loser's lament.

We didn't understand it fully at the time, but Mother Nature threw the Yankees a fat fastball down the middle when Verlander couldn't finish Game 1 and start Game 5. The Yankees swung through it like A-Rod swung through that 1-and-2 pitch from Valverde.

Sure, the Yankees couldn't go with their pre-series plan to pitch CC Sabathia in Games 1 and 4. But A.J. Burnett won Game 4 anyway.

It seemed as if Girardi was determined to move heaven and earth to get Sabathia into Thursday night's game, no matter if it made sense. Ivan Nova left after two innings down 2-0 with what the Yankees called a tight forearm, but Phil Hughes was pitching just fine when Girardi starting matching up in the fourth and brought in Boone Logan. That allowed Girardi to give Sabathia the time he needed to warm up to come in for the fifth.

But Sabathia gave up a run in his first inning -- the eventual winning run, as it turned out. It's not clear what Girardi gained by using Sabathia over what he could have potentially lost, which was having Sabathia start Game 1 of the ALCS.

If the Yankees had gotten a clutch hit or two, they would be getting ready for that series Friday, but the 4-5-6 of Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher were dreadful.

Swisher, in particular, looks to be an example of what ails these Yankees. He's a good player in the regular season, but he turns to jelly in the playoffs. It happened in 2009, too, but the Yankees won despite him.

Swisher wants to be the hero more than any player we've ever seen. But when he struck out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning, it made him 1-for-31 with 10 Ks in 38 postseason games with runners in scoring position.

"Those guys have nothing to be ashamed of," Girardi said. "Nothing you can say is going to make them feel any better."

Yankees fans feel the same way today.

New York Sports