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Friday, May 27, 2011
Updated: May 28, 10:49 AM ET
Joe's handling of 'pen not so mighty

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

SEATTLE -- David Robertson got out of a bed in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at 4:30 a.m. ET Friday. Nearly 20 hours later, he was on the mound at Safeco Field, doing his job to perfection, pitching an overpowering eighth inning against the Mariners.

Trouble was, the game had already been lost two innings earlier.

But that's what happens when a manager sticks to a game plan even if the game no longer fits his plan.

Robertson, back from a mission of mercy to his tornado-ravaged hometown, was no doubt the most tired man in the New York Yankees bullpen. He was also the only one able to do his job. Unfortunately, by the time he was asked to do it, it was too late. At the time, the Yankees trailed 4-3, and that's the way it would stay.

Mark Teixeira
Mark Teixeira's home run off Michael Pineda in the first inning gave the Yankees an early lead.

The Yankees began a nine-game, 10-day West Coast road trip Friday night with a tough assignment, facing Seattle rookie Michael Pineda, who had strung together back-to-back seven-inning scoreless stints and brought in a 6-2 record and 2.16 ERA to go along with his 98 mph fastball.

Not a single hitter in the Yankees lineup had ever faced Pineda, and considering their record of futility against pitchers they have never seen, the night had defeat written all over it.

Except for a couple of things: Mark Teixeira loved his first look at Pineda, crushing a fastball into the right-field seats for a first-inning home run. And Pineda, who had walked only two batters in four previous starts this month, on this night couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS, walking five batters. When the Yankees chased him after five innings, they led 3-0 and would have led 4-0 if Franklin Gutierrez hadn't convinced Nick Swisher his season was truly snakebitten by leaping over the wall to rob him of a fourth-inning home run.

Everything went the Yankees' way for half the game. After that, virtually nothing did. The Mariners got two runs back in the bottom of the fifth on groundouts following a fluky check-swing double just inside the left-field line by Ichiro Suzuki. That convinced Joe Girardi that A.J. Burnett, who pitched reasonably well for five innings, was about to implode in the sixth. Later on, Eduardo Nuñez, sent in to pinch-run for Jorge Posada, managed to get himself picked off second base, ending the eighth inning as the potential tying run.

But let's return to that sixth inning, and the managerial decision-making process that led, ultimately, to a needless defeat.

Burnett had thrown 97 pitches, had walked five batters himself, and struck out six, mostly with a curveball that was as nasty as it has been all season.

Still, Girardi decided it was time to make a change, even though his bullpen is short and even though his middle relievers are periodically unreliable.

"If he had given up the two runs early, I might have stayed with him," Girardi said. "But he gave up the two runs, he got a pitch up to Brendan Ryan [who singled leading off the fifth], he got a pitch up to Ichiro, so it was a little bit different."

OK, but then rather than going to his best relievers, Robertson and Joba Chamberlain, Girardi chose to go to Boone Logan and Luis Ayala. That turned out to be the difference in the game.

"No question," Burnett said when asked if he thought he could have pitched an effective sixth inning. "But that's not my decision. Those guys are out in that bullpen for a reason. I personally can't control that."

Logan, a lefty specialist, gave up a hit to lefty Adam Kennedy to lead off the sixth. Left-handed batters are now 11-for-32 against Logan this season (.343), indicating perhaps he is no longer very proficient at his specialty.

And Ayala, admittedly an emergency addition to the pen as a result of the injuries to Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano, came in and did even worse -- a single by Miguel Olivo, a walk to Carlos Peguero, a bases-loaded, no-out situation and, predictably, a blown lead, even if the manager offered a positive spin by pointing out that both runs scored on groundouts.

But Ayala created a situation that allowed harmful runs to score on what should have been harmless at-bats.

And it all occurred because of Girardi's insistence on adhering to a rigid formula: Robertson pitches the seventh inning, Joba pitches the eighth, Mariano Rivera slams the door shut in the ninth and everyone goes home happy.

A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett was solid through five. But Joe Giradi's bullpen couldn't hold his lead in the sixth.

"We had it all set up," Girardi said. "But it didn't work out."

Problem was, the crucial inning was the sixth and Girardi entrusted it to the fourth- and fifth-best arms in his bullpen. Girardi, of course, is hardly the only major-league manager who works this way, bound by his numbers and his assigned roles and his reluctance to use either of his bullpen stoppers for more than a single inning.

And in fairness, losing Feliciano before the season even began forced him into an over-reliance on Logan, and losing Soriano has forced him into using Robertson and Chamberlain more often than he would prefer.

But circumstances dictate usage, and sometimes usage has to vary according to what is happening in the game. While was saving Robertson and Chamberlain for their preferred roles, the Yankees were losing a game they probably should have won. And it doesn't get any easier: On Saturday, they face Felix Hernandez, King Felix, who has beaten them four straight times, three on complete games, with a 0.51 ERA against.

"It's always disappointing when you lose a game you had a chance to win," Girardi said. "We had a chance to win tonight and that's disappointing. We take a 3-0 lead into the fifth and we weren't able to hold it."

More accurately, the Yankees bullpen wasn't able to hold it, in part because of the way the Yankees manager chose to use it.

•••

Swisher went 1-for-3, raising his average to .206, but was still angry about Gutierrez's leaping catch that robbed him of a home run in the fourth. "An 0-2 slider and I crushed it," he said. "I can't believe he caught that [bleeping] ball. I hit it really well, but what are you gonna do? He looked like Michael Jordan on that play." ... Girardi said he would wait until Saturday to talk to Nuñez about getting picked off on the very next pitch after he had stolen second base, putting himself in a position to score the tying run if Swisher had been able to get a hit. But Swisher never got a chance when Mariners reliever David Pauley whirled and fired to second, helped by Nuñez's left hand apparently sticking in the dirt as he tried to slide back. "I don't like to make excuses, but if my hand doesn't stick, I'm safe," Nuñez said. Girardi agreed, but added, "Nunie just can't get picked there. Maybe it's inexperience or maybe it's being too aggressive. He feels bad so I won't get him now, but we'll talk to him and continue to educate him in that situation." ... Derek Jeter singled leading off the seventh, leaving him just 23 hits shy of 3,000. He also grounded out for the last out of the game against Seattle closer Brandon League. ... Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.29) starts against Hernandez (5-4, 3.01) Saturday night. First pitch at 10:10 p.m.