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Saturday, April 27, 2013
Updated: April 28, 8:52 AM ET
Joey Looseleafs plays it loose

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- For one of the rare times in his five-plus years as the Yankees manager, Joey Looseleafs played it loose.

For a manager as By-The-Binder as Joe Girardi, starting a left-handed hitting DH against a left-handed starter is a concept as radical as playing four outfielders.

But for day at least, Binder Boy became Blinder Boy. Girardi, who studies numbers as closely as any actuary, decided that today was the day to turn a blind eye to his numbers and split and spray charts and heat maps.

For him, today was the day to buy a Powerball ticket, to splurge on that extra piece of cheesecake at lunch, to drop his guard and allow a more vulgar word than "patootie'' to slip into his surgically-clean vocabulary.

Travis Hafner
Travis Hafner came up big with a three-run homer and a triple on Saturday.

Maybe even the day to run that binder through a document shredder.

Or, at very least, to write Travis Hafner's name into his lineup card even though the opposing starter, J.A. Happ, throws with his left hand.

To some extent, this was born of necessity. His right-handed DH, Ben Francisco, hasn't been able to hit anyone, regardless of which hand they happen to throw with. And although it was a miniscule sample, he's been unable to solve Happ, against whom he had managed just one single in six at-bats.

So this morning, Joey Looseleafs swallowed hard and became Joey Fast-and-Loose. He made Hafner his DH, albeit two spots down in the batting order from where he would normally hit.

And a couple of hours later, Hafner, who has already made general manager Brian Cashman look like a visionary for signing him in February, proceeded to make Girardi look like a genius for playing him on this particular Saturday afternoon in April.

Hafner's three-run homer off Happ in the fourth inning wiped out a 3-0 Toronto Blue Jays lead, and an even less-likely triple off Brett Cecil (another lefty) in the seventh provided the margin of victory in the Yankees' 5-4 win at the Stadium.

"Ben's kinda struggled so I thought it was time to give Haf a shot at it today,'' Girardi said. "I won't do it every time because he's had some injury problems. Off-days don't necessarily hurt him and I have to be careful. But I just thought today was a good day to do it, and he made it work.''

Hafner's signing was roundly jeered in February, largely because as good a player as he had been, he had not been that player for a solid seven seasons. Hafner's best season was in 2006, when, as a member of the Cleveland Indians, he hit 42 home runs, knocked in 117 runs, batted .308 and led the league in slugging percentage (.659) and OPS (1.097).

But it was all downhill from there. He played a full season (152 games) in 2007, but his production dropped off significantly -- .266-24-100 -- and thereafter began a run of five straight injury-plagued seasons. A broken hand, knee surgery and back and shoulder problems landed him on the disabled list a half-dozen times, and by the time the Yankees came calling this winter, Hafner was pretty much out of other offers.

But like a parade of other once-productive players the Yankees pulled off the scrap heap -- Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood immediately come to mind -- the 35-year-old Hafner seems to have been re-animated by the move to New York.

"It's absolutely helped me,'' Hafner said. "You know you're going to be playing in front of huge crowds all the time. It's a great ballpark to play in. Great clubhouse; good dudes. It's been a lot of fun for me coming to the park every day."

It helped that during the process, Hafner received more than one recruiting pitch from CC Sabathia, a teammate for six seasons in Cleveland.

"We talked the whole offseason when he was thinking about coming here,'' Sabathia said. "Back and forth, I told him it was cool and we have a chance to win every year. That's what you ask for, as a player, and I think he's been excited."

And it hasn't hurt that from day one, the Yankees told Hafner to bring no glove but his batting gloves; his job would be solely to hit the baseball.

That he has done, to great effect for a lineup depleted by the loss of more than 150 home runs from last year due to injuries and free-agent defections. In 19 games, Hafner has belted six home runs, which puts him one behind team leader Robinson Cano. He has driven in 14, also good for second place behind Cano, who has 17. He is batting .309, once again second to Cano.

But no Yankee has a higher slugging percentage or OPS than the .727 and 1.160 compiled so far by the man other players call "Pronk,'' for reasons not entirely clear.

It really doesn't matter. The nickname implies brute force, like Lurch. But Hafner's soft-spoken, easygoing personality belies his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.

When teammates jokingly asked about the last time he hit a triple, he went along with it -- "Probably in Little League,'' he said -- although in truth, he had two last year and now has 13 in 11-plus major-league seasons.

So even when Sabathia alleged he had never seen Hafner hit a triple -- he actually had nine during the time they were teammates -- Hafner chuckled and said, "He probably never did.''

Sabathia saw this one, however, because it helped bail him out on a day on which he had a little more velocity than in previous starts -- he hit 92 on several fastballs -- but a whole lot less stuff.

He allowed a season-high nine hits, including two long home runs, but somehow managed to stay in the game long enough for Hafner and Vernon Wells, another castoff who is playing like a prospect for the Yankees, to drive in the late runs necessary to overcome an early 3-0 deficit.

"They still have a lot of baseball left,'' Sabathia said of Hafner and Wells, who is also hitting .309 with six home runs. "People wrote them off in other places, but they still have a lot of game left. I think coming here rejuvenated them, and they're playing well."

But the one who has really made an impact is Hafner, who has replaced a good portion of the power lost when Ibanez, Nick Swisher and Russell Martin signed elsewhere, and Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson went down with injuries.

"This is the Pronk of old,'' Sabathia said. "We knew coming in, if he could stay healthy he'd have a good chance of having a good year. And he's gotten off to a good start."

Although Hafner's numbers against lefties are more than acceptable -- he is a .256 career hitter against them -- Girardi said this would not be a permanent arrangement.

"Yeah, we'll see,'' Girardi said when asked if Hafner would get more action against lefties now. "But part of it is managing him, too. When you have guys who have some age and some history of health problems, you have to manage them and pick your days. I picked today to put him in against a left-hander and he was great.''

So was Girardi, who for one day out of 162, decided to lose the looseleaf and go with his gut.

On this day, lefty-on-lefty turned out to be absolutely the right call.