Girardi's curious moves in Game 2 help shift ALDS in Tigers' favor
Joe Girardi's day was a series of questionable moves in the Tigers' 5-3 victory
Girardi basically conceded the Yankees had no chance to come back and win
With Justin Verlander and A.J. Burnett in Games 3 and 4, the Tigers look good
NEW YORK -- Game time was fast approaching, and it was difficult not to look at the sprawling expanse of Yankee Stadium in all its vivid colors and see black-and-white. It was 61 degrees early on an early October afternoon before a postseason game, with bunting ringing the decks of the three-tiered ballpark and a living, breathing Yankees legend striding to the mound to throw the first pitch of the day.
It was a moment that recalled the many Bronx Octobers of years past, most of them in the historic ballpark that once lived across the street where Andy Pettitte became a part of Yankee lore largely because of days like this one. Had Pettitte, the winningest postseason pitcher of alltime, been available, handing him the ball against the Tigers on Sunday in Game 2 of the ALDS would have been the easiest and least controversial decision Yankees manager Joe Girardi would have had to make all day. After all, Pettitte had made Game 2 of the ALDS his personal space, starting that game 10 times in his 12 Division Series with New York.
Instead, Pettitte, whose retirement last February created a chasm in the Yankees rotation that they are still scrambling to fill eight months later, was gone after making the ceremonial first pitch, and Girardi's day became a series of curious moves that didn't cause but certainly didn't help New York's 5-3 defeat that left this Division Series tied at one game apiece heading back to Detroit for Monday's Game 3.
To be fair, the Tigers had their own share of heroes, most notably Miguel Cabrera, who had three hits and three RBIs, and starting pitcher Max Scherzer, who threw six-plus scoreless innings of two-hit ball.
Scherzer, in fact, was exactly the kind of reliable option Girardi could have used to start this game. Instead, into Pettitte's customary place as New York's No. 2 postseason starter stepped Freddy Garcia, a veteran castoff whom the Yankees turned to last offseason partly out of desperation to replace Pettitte. Four batters into the game, the Tigers led 2-0 thanks to a two-run homer by Cabrera, the Human Hitting Machine, and though the Yankees would get no closer in an eventual 5-3 loss, it's hard not to wonder if they would have had the game been handled a little differently by Girardi, whose strategy and explanations for that strategy left much to be desired.
There is no criticism for not starting CC Sabathia just 19 hours after he had exited Friday's aborted opener following a 48-pitch bullpen session and two innings of 27 pitches. With a 1-0 series lead, Girardi clearly felt he could afford the extra day of rest for his ace in advance of Monday's Game 3 in Detroit.
Through five innings, Garcia had acquitted himself well. He rebounded from Cabrera's homer to retire 13 of the next 14 Tigers hitters. The problems began when Girardi sent Garcia out for the sixth -- something Garcia had done just twice since the first week of August -- without having anyone warmed up to take over if and when the inning, and the game, got away from him.
Almost predictably, the inning began with Austin Jackson reaching on an error and Magglio Ordonez lining a single. After a strikeout of Delmon Young, Garcia was still on the mound to face the Tigers' two best hitters: Cabrera, who led the majors this year with a .344 average, and is, as Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said, "maybe the best Tiger ever already" and Victor Martinez, who ranked fourth in the AL with a .330 average. Compounding the curiosity was that there had been time as soon as Jackson reached base to sense trouble lurking just a few batters away, as well as the fact that the Yankees' two best middle relievers -- Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, both righties -- were completely rested, neither having thrown since last Tuesday, a full four days of rest.
Cabrera and Martinez both delivered run-scoring hits that doubled Detroit's lead from two runs to four and finally brought Girardi out to relieve his starter.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Yankees got the first two runners on base for the first time all day and with one out, Eric Chavez was sent up to pinch-hit for Brett Gardner. Girardi later explained his rationale by saying he "hoped [Chavez] might pop one."
The foolishness of such blind hope was immediately apparent to the man on the mound, Detroit's Joaquin Benoit. Chavez has "popped one" exactly twice all year and only five times in the past four seasons. Gardner, while not a serious home-run threat, has hit seven this year and has the same AB/HR ratio as Chavez, to say nothing of the higher on-base percentage, ability to run and value in the field.
From the mound, Benoit's sigh of relief was practically audible. "That was their mistake," he said. "I've faced Chavez a lot when he was with Oakland and I have a great idea what to do with him."
Indeed, Benoit had faced Chavez 16 times already, four times as much as he's faced Gardner. He started Chavez with two split-finger fastballs for swinging strikes before blowing Chavez away with a 95-mph fastball.
What made Girardi's thinking even more unusual was that Chavez, when informed of it, looked as surprised as he was confused. "That wasn't my thought process there," he said. "I don't try to do anything other than put a good swing on the ball."
The final, most egregious mistake came in the top of the ninth. Detroit's lead was down to 4-1 but even with Soriano, Robertson and Mariano Rivera -- who has thrown just three pitches since Tuesday -- all waiting in the bullpen, Girardi instead summoned Luis Ayala. This was the same Ayala who had allowed two hits to the three batters he faced in Game 1 and last Wednesday gave up three hits, a walk and a hit batter in one inning that ignited the flames of Tampa Bay's miracle comeback.
"We still have two more games in a row, in a sense," explained Girardi afterward. "And we're down three. If we got it down to two we were going to change. But being down three runs and you know what [Jose] Valverde has done all year long we decided to go to Ayala."
In other words, Girardi was basically conceding that the Yankees had no chance to come back against Detroit's closer, who was a perfect 49-for-49 in save chances this year, and didn't want to burn one of his top relievers. Again, the move backfired, as the Tigers quickly tacked on an insurance run thanks to a hit batter, a sacrifice bunt and a single.
That run loomed large when the Yankees did in fact put themselves into position to win the game. Nick Swisher homered off Valverde to lead off the bottom of the ninth, and Jorge Posada followed with the first triple of his 481 career postseason plate appearances. A walk to Russell Martin brought the tying run to the plate in the person of Andruw Jones, now batting in Gardner's spot. Jones hit a sacrifice fly to score Posada, but there was still one man on, which might have been the tying run if not for the extra run the Tigers had gotten in the ninth. Valverde instead had a two-run cushion to work with, and he managed to strike out Derek Jeter and, despite a walk to Curtis Granderson, got Robinson Cano -- whom Tigers manager Jim Leyland considered intentionally walking -- to ground out to end the game.
"Every game you play in this series, when it's a shorter series of five games, is extremely important," said Girardi after a game in which he didn't always manage that way.
Girardi is a fine manager who deserves his share of the credit for guiding this aging Yankees team to an AL-best 97 wins despite having only one reliable starting pitcher and not getting any notable in-season reinforcements. Nor would it be fair to say that he cost the Yankees the game. It was, nevertheless, a case study in how managers can tip the odds that are already against his team even more in his opponent's direction.
In a short series in which such gambles can prove especially destructive if they backfire, the Tigers now have the odds for the entire series in their favor. They return home to Detroit with home-field advantage and with the world's best pitcher, Justin Verlander, ready for Game 3 and knowing that in Game 4 they get to face New York's erratic A.J. Burnett, who is only getting a start in this series because of the ripple effect from Friday's suspended game.
It is quite clear the Tigers have more than the momentum. As they packed up to leave their clubhouse on Sunday evening, they knew they now have an excellent chance at ensuring that they won't be back here again and that Yankee Stadium's 2011 season is already a part of history.