Girardi discards convention, and wins
NEW YORK -- Joe Girardi eventually did the right thing. But his right move was transformed into a brilliant move, maybe the managerial move of a lifetime, by Raul Ibanez.
Girardi did what might have been previously unthinkable, but now would become deliriously successful. He had Ibanez pinch-hit for a man who, not that long ago, was the game's star of stars, Alex Rodriguez.
All that was on the line here was the possible outcome of an entire American League Division Series. With his Yankees trailing the Baltimore Orioles, 2-1, with one out in the bottom of the ninth -- two outs from falling behind, 2-1, in this series -- Girardi made the bold but ultimately correct move, pinch-hitting the left-handed-hitting Ibanez for Rodriguez against Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, a right-hander.
"I just felt I had to do what was in my gut, what my stomach was telling me and what I thought was the best thing to do," Girardi said. "As a manager, sometimes you manage different in these types of games than you would necessarily during the course of the season because you have a long time to deal with it. But today, I just felt like this is what my heart is telling me to do, and I'm going to do it."
Girardi's stomach, his gut, his heart were all correct. Ibanez hit Johnson's second pitch over the wall in right field to tie the game at 2. And, in one of the most thrilling encores even this franchise has produced, Ibanez came to the plate to lead off the 12th inning and hit another one out to right for the game-winner and a 2-1 series lead. Ibanez hit this one off Brian Matusz, a left-hander who has had considerable success since being shifted from the rotation to the bullpen.
Rodriguez appeared to take being pinch-hit for in stride. In the Yankees' clubhouse after the game, he expressed only support for Girardi's decision and joy at the victory delivered via Ibanez's two home runs. Asked if his relationship with Girardi would be altered because of this move, Rodriguez replied: "I love Joe."
He later added: "I'm Joe's biggest fan.
"Maybe 10 years ago, I would have reacted in a different way," Rodriguez said. "I'm at a place in my career where the team is everything."
The backdrop to these remarkable developments was this: Rodriguez appeared to be in yet another postseason slump (.083, 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts). This has not been an unusual October development for A-Rod as a Yankee, with the exception of the 2009 postseason, when he was terrific and the Yankees, not at all coincidentally, became World Series champions.
The search for more offense was on after the Yankees' lineup struggled in a 3-2 loss in Game 2 of this series. Rodriguez was not the only culprit in this lack of hitting, but for both the media and many fans, he is the most convenient target due to salary, prominence and past postseason shortcomings.
Girardi was urged, in many quarters, to move Rodriguez from the third spot in the lineup, the spot typically reserved for a team's best hitter. Robinson Cano, arguably the leading hitter in this lineup, would then move into the No. 3 slot. Girardi declined, on the grounds that moving Rodriguez would require more moves in the lineup in order to avoid stacking left-handed hitters together. Further, Girardi said:
"I trust our guys. I'm with them every day. I'm with their approach every day, and it's important that they trust me. The other thing is we played playoff baseball the whole month of September and the first three days of October, and Alex hit third and we won a lot of games with a lineup that we kept consistent. Guys knew where they were at every day, and I think there's something to be said for that."
So that was apparently that. Except that it wasn't. Girardi said that the possibility of using Ibanez as a pinch-hitter in the ninth was a logical one, since he is a low-ball hitter and would be working against Johnson, primarily a low-ball pitcher.
The possibility of pinch-hitting Ibanez for Rodriguez first occurred to Girardi in the seventh inning, the manager said, when he saw that A-Rod's spot in the batting order would come up then. Girardi said he informed Rodriguez of the decision by telling him, "You're scuffling a little bit right now. We have got a low-ball hitter and we've got a shorter porch in right field than left field, obviously. Raul has been a good pinch-hitter for us, and I'm just going to take a shot."
Both men agreed that Rodriguez responded without objection to this breakthrough concept, saying, in A-Rod's words: "Joe, you've got to do exactly what you've got to do." Rodriguez then went to the top step of the dugout to cheer on his teammates.
Thus, the Yankees went from the doorstep of postseason elimination to a 2-1 series lead over the Orioles. Credit Joe Girardi for making the right move, a groundbreaking move. Rodriguez said he had never been removed from a game for a pinch-hitter in his professional career. As much as some people appeared to want A-Rod out of the lineup, there still would have been criticism if this move had backfired.
But then, after giving due credit to Girardi, you have to give immense credit to Ibanez, who turned a good move into a work of genius.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.