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Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Joe Cool, red-hot Yankees in the hunt

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- This was the perfect game for Joe Girardi before it even started, before Ichiro Suzuki made a little history on two continents, before Alfonso Soriano sent yet another ball whistling over the outfield wall.

Alex Rodriguez made his first smart move in a long, long time, announcing he was hitting the mute button on an attorney, Joe Tacopina, who talks faster than Ichiro runs, and doing so "out of respect to my team and my manager and my coaches."

We don't know whether A-Rod would have granted the same courtesy to Joe Torre, a boss he grew to despise. We do know he did it Wednesday evening for Joe Girardi, who might be piecing together the best managing job in the Bronx since the "Clueless Joe" days of the thrice-fired Torre, who shocked the world by winning it all in 1996.

Joe Girardi, Ichiro Suzuki
Joe Girardi will accomplish an Ichiro Suzuki-like feat if he avoids managing the Yankees' second non-playoff team since 1994.

"I think we can make a run, I really do," Girardi said from behind the batting cage before his New York Yankees nailed down their ninth victory in 11 games, beating the Toronto Blue Jays by a 4-2 count.

"It's just the way we're playing, the way we've come from behind. The thing is you can't have too many slipups. You have to be at the top of your game for the next 37, and then we'll see where we stand."

By night's end, Mariano Rivera had made it one down, 36 to go, striking out two batters and ultimately outsmarting the one (Rajai Davis) who doubled off him, spinning on a dime off the rubber and picking him off second base. Rivera wasn't about to ruin the night for his fellow icon Ichiro, who lashed an R.A. Dickey knuckleball to left in the first inning for his 4,000th combined hit as a big leaguer in the U.S. and Japan, inspiring his teammates to spill onto the field to embrace him at first.

If the images of Ichiro at 4K didn't measure up to those of Derek Jeter at 3K, the reaction from the Yankees and the fans moved the right fielder all the same. "I wasn't expecting so much joy and happiness from them," said Ichiro, a true artist who deserved both.

"It's an amazing feat," Girardi said.

The manager is in the middle of one of his own. The Yankees are only four back in the wild card with Jeter playing a grand total of five games and with Rodriguez threatening to sue everyone but Yogi and Whitey. If the Yanks make the tournament this time around, Girardi might start posing for his Monument Park plaque.

Funny how things work out. The Joe Girardi of 2008, the first-year Yankees manager who forever appeared ready to spontaneously combust over the slightest thing gone wrong? That guy would have morphed into the Michael Douglas character in "Falling Down" the minute A-Rod's people threatened to go deep.

The 2013 Joe Girardi? Outside of his Fenway Park meltdown in support of his third baseman, he has maintained a Joe Cool vibe while everyone around him has lost their minds. A-Rod might be going after team doctor Chris Ahmad, team president Randy Levine and team general manager Brian Cashman, but he's taking Tacopina & Co. off the air as a show of respect (in part) for Girardi, whom he says he adores.

How in the world has the manager maintained a functional relationship with one of his most important players while that player tries to burn down the empire?

"It hasn't been really difficult for me because I talk baseball with Alex 90, 95 percent of the time," Girardi told ESPNNewYork.com. "I'm talking about how he's doing baseball-wise, which I'd be talking about anyway, so that hasn't changed a whole lot.

"I think just communication has been important with Alex, just showing respect for him and trying to get the most out of him. ... When he comes through that door, it's getting him prepared to play and getting everyone else prepared to play. I haven't had to deal with everything [Levine and Cashman] have had to deal with, so it's much different. I'm out of that. My job is baseball."

His job is to somehow lead the Yankees to the postseason. If they don't rally to win a wild card, Girardi will end up presiding over the only two non-playoff seasons in the Bronx since the 1994 players strike. He knows this. He knows he'll always be measured against the four-championship Torre standard.

It would be a big burden to carry even without the devastating injuries he's had to endure, without Jeter growing old and without Rodriguez playing master juggler in a circus that would put any of George Steinbrenner's or Rex Ryan's to shame.

"But I think being here in New York as a player, and a coach, and watching other people do it," Girardi said, "you were used to things that came up, whether it was [someone] fighting cancer or something else.

"It seemed like there was always something that came up that we had to deal with as a team, and I hate to say it, but I kind of got used to having to shut things out when I went out there."

Before his team beat Toronto on Soriano's two-run shot in the eighth, before Rodriguez declared he would "shut everything down" on his legal eagles, Girardi was asked behind the batting cage whether the A-Rod case represented the biggest challenge he'd ever confronted on the job.

"No," he said. "Losing my father was bigger because that was personal, and it really hurt."

Ichiro then went out and did his thing to open the game before Rivera did his thing in closing it. In between, a young reliever named David Huff, No. 60, came up as big as an old linebacker named Sam Huff, No. 70, and Soriano -- a rookie teammate of Girardi's for a handful of September games in '99 -- ended an 0-for-17 drought by blasting a Dickey knuckler into next week, his ninth homer as a Yank this season.

"We knew Sori was special back then," Girardi said outside the winners' clubhouse, "but we didn't see too much of him because we were trying to protect our lead."

Girardi won his third and final ring as a Yankees catcher that fall, then left to sign with his hometown Chicago Cubs. Cashman has said he doesn't want to let Girardi walk a second time, that he wants his manager back for 2014 and beyond.

"We haven't talked about it," Girardi said of his expiring contract, "and I haven't asked. My job is to manage the team this year, and then we'll see about next year."

Yes, Joe Girardi is managing the team this year, there's no doubt about that. He's managing it despite absurd circumstances, and leading it into a September that could be as wild and crazy as any whether A-Rod sticks to his truce or not.

So if Girardi carries these Yankees into the playoffs, he should file his own grievance against his employers and ask for 50 percent of whatever cash they save on A-Rod's eventual suspension.