Joe Girardi gambles, and it pays off

NEW YORK -- Finally, after weeks of managing without any sense of urgency, the Yankees' Joe Girardi switched the ignition back on.

The impact it had on his team was undisputed. By starting Phil Hughes instead of the pedestrian Dustin Moseley on Sunday night, Girardi gave his players the "It's time to get serious again" sign.

"I loved it," Alex Rodriguez said of Girardi's decision to turn to Hughes.

No more taking the playoffs for granted -- the Yankees were finally just trying to get in.

With the misty cool air sweeping into Yankee Stadium, it even felt like a "playoff atmosphere," Rodriguez said. Girardi treated the game as if the Yankees weren't already in the postseason, which wasn't the same approach he had when Moseley was going to start.

Despite everything that happened Sunday night, the most important element of the Yankees' 4-3 10-inning classic win over the Boston Red Sox came on Saturday.

The Yankees averted a sweep, clinched a tie for the wild card and moved a half-game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East largely because of the conversation GM Brian Cashman had with Girardi on Saturday.

Cashman talked with Girardi about starting Hughes, whom the Yankees had planned to bump until Wednesday in Toronto because of his team-imposed innings limit.

During Saturday's loss, pitching coach Dave Eiland asked Hughes to be honest: Could he pitch on Sunday, even though he'd been preparing as if his start would be on Wednesday? Hughes had thrown a lighter-than-normal bullpen session, but he still said yes.

After the Yankees' loss on Saturday, Girardi told Hughes on his way out the door that he would be starting Sunday night. Hughes said it did not harm his preparation at all and he was ready.

It showed. He threw six strong innings of one-run ball.

"We needed to come back strong and give our best and we did," closer Mariano Rivera said.

Rivera was in the middle of Girardi's second stepping-on-the-gas decision. Girardi brought Rivera in for a four-out save. Rivera succeeded in the eighth, stranding a man at second base. But he gave up two runs in the ninth when the Red Sox stole four bases off him and catcher Jorge Posada.

It didn't matter though, because the Yankees got to Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima to win the game for Girardi, stopping the team's first four-game home losing streak.

"It's a lot better feeling in that clubhouse than it has been lately," said Girardi, whose team is 7-13 in its past 20 games.

Since the Yankees will uncap Hughes when the playoffs begin, it made total sense to roll back the odometer on Sunday. Now, with the Yankees' win, the team can pitch Hughes in relief during the final week of the regular season.

While Hughes failed last October, he is not a player who seems unnerved by important situations. He is as regular a guy as there is on the Yankees -- his personality remains unchanged regardless of the moment.

The moment changed from Saturday to Sunday for the Yankees. They realized that if they had lost on Sunday, then -- though still improbable -- the Red Sox would have needed just one Yankees loss in Toronto to control their own destiny, because the two teams meet next weekend for three games in Boston.

"[Girardi] had set up a game plan a week in advance, five days in advance, based on information we had at that point -- things were different after [Saturday] and we changed because we could and we felt we needed to," Cashman said.

Girardi needed to change. He did -- and the Yankees are headed toward the playoffs.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com