DETROIT — Searching for answers, Joe Girardi was stumped.
“I can’t hit,” the New York Yankees manager said.
And, apparently, neither can some of his high-priced stars.
The Yankees avoided a dubious distinction Tuesday night and yet moved within a loss of elimination for the third straight year.
Eduardo Nunez’s ninth-inning home run prevented New York from getting shut out in consecutive games of one postseason for the first time.
Raul Ibanez, though, went on to strike out against former Yankee Phil Coke with two on, sealing a 2-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night and a 3-0 AL championship series deficit.
On a night when Alex Rodriguez was benched for the second time in four games, Justin Verlander took a two-hit shutout into the ninth, allowing a pair of Ichiro Suzuki singles.
Nunez homered on a Verlander curveball with one out in the ninth, and Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano hit consecutive two-out singles against the lefty Coke— with Cano ending a postseason-record streak of 29 hitless at-bats.
“I wasn’t thinking of that,” Cano insisted. “You just got to get on base for your teammates, especially in a situation like that when you want to keep the inning alive and you’ve got the hottest hitter coming after you.”
Ibanez, whose ninth-inning, two-run homer tied the opener, got ahead in the count 3-1 before fouling off a pair of pitches and striking out on a slider in the dirt.
“He gave me some good pitches to hit, and I fouled them off,” he said. “He threw a breaking ball down and I didn’t get it done.”
Ibanez said he and his teammates still have confidence in their ability to come back in the series.
“Everything can turn around in one swing of the bat, in one inning, things can turn around,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen. We’ve all seen it happen.”
Only the 2004 Boston Red Sox — against the Yankees — have overcome a 3-0 deficit in a postseason series.
The Yankees will lean on their ace, CC Sabathia, who was 2-0 with a 1.53 ERA in the division series against Baltimore, to at least extend the ALCS with a strong performance Wednesday night in Game 4.
“We’re still in this thing,” Gardner said. “If you’re down 3-0, you want CC on the mound.”
Sabathia insisted his team’s struggles at the plate don’t affect his approach on the mound.
“I always want to go out and try to shut the other team down,” he said.
New York is hitting .200 in the playoffs, including .196 with runners in scoring position. The Yankees have a .182 average in the LCS, in danger of becoming a record low for New York in a postseason series — a.171 mark set against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1963 World Series.
Rodriguez, 3 for 23 in the playoffs — including 0 for 18 with 12 strikeouts against right-handed pitchers, sat on the bench — even overlooked as a pinch hitter. Nick Swisher, 4 for 26 in the playoffs, joined the $275 million third baseman in taking a seat.
“We’re just trying to find a lineup that works,” said Swisher, a free-agent-to-be who could complete his Yankees career Wednesday. “I thought it was a great lineup. I wasn’t in it, but you have to back your teammates.”
Girardi could’ve chosen to put Rodriguez in the game as a pinch hitter if Ibanez extended the ninth inning, but with catcher Russell Martin limited by a bruised right thumb, he had Swisher on deck.
“You want to get up in those spots and be the guy in that spot,” Swisher said.
Eric Chavez replaced Rodriguez at third base and went 0 for 3. Brett Gardner went 0 for 4, essentially taking Swisher’s spot, leading off and playing left field, in his first start since April 17. Curtis Granderson had an 0 for 3 night, dropping to 3 for 29 with 15 strikeouts in the playoffs.
And, Girardi can’t turn to Derek Jeter, whose year ended when he broke his left ankle in the opener.
Rodriguez seemed to take his demotion to the dugout in stride by smiling and joking with teammates as he stretched before being forced to sit. He didn’t talk to reporters before the game and departed postgame before media was allowed into the clubhouse.
Phil Hughes left with a back injury in the fourth inning, two batters after allowing Delmon Young’s leadoff home run.
“It wasn’t too bad, I was trying to stay in the game,” Hughes said. “They just decided with the circumstances and kind of the way things were going that they’d go to the bullpen.”
In the fifth, David Phelps gave up an RBI double to Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and that proved to be the game-winning hit that put the Yankees on the brink of elimination.
“Thank goodness it’s a seven-game series, and not a five-game series,” Gardner said. “We’re still alive.”