Skipper ruins Andy Pettitte's return

BALTIMORE -- Joe Girardi began his Sunday at Camden Yards managing as if it were the first game of spring training and the final score didn't really matter to him.

Nearly four hours later, he was managing as frantically as if it were the seventh game of the World Series.

Sometime between noon, when he posted a lineup card that was more like a surrender flag -- no Mark Teixeira, no Alex Rodriguez, Ramiro Pena at third base -- and 5:18 p.m., when Ty Wigginton's liner into the right center-field gap brought a merciful end to a game that had become torture for Yankees fans, the Win At All Costs alarm went off in Girardi's overactive mind. What had earlier looked like a throwaway game became one the New York Yankees' skipper absolutely had to have.

And ultimately, it became a crushing, deflating loss to the Baltimore Orioles, heading into a crucial four-game series.

Before you knew what was going on, Rodriguez, who had been given the day off as part of Girardi's "Keep Alex Fresh" campaign, was at the plate and Teixeira, who was held out for the second straight day due to lingering pain from hand and foot injuries, found himself not only pinch-hitting, but playing the field.

Not only that, but Girardi was pulling hitters in the middle of at-bats -- he yanked Pena for Marcus Thames after Pena already had a 1-1 count against him in the 11th, compromising his team in the field (Thames wound up playing left in the crucial bottom of the 11th).-- and despite having rookie Ivan Nova scheduled to open a truly important series with the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night at Yankee Stadium, depleting his bullpen in a futile effort.

In the final analysis, just about every one of those moves misfired. A-Rod and Teixeira walked. Thames, deprived of one key strike, struck out, and more damagingly, may have allowed Luke Scott to get to second base on a hit that Brett Gardner, the man he replaced, might have limited to a single. Scott wound up scoring from second on Wigginton's shot off David Robertson and when it was all over, and you realized that the Rays had lost, too, you were left with one overriding question: Were all of those machinations and maneuvers really necessary?

In fairness to Girardi, he never could have predicted that Mariano Rivera, entrusted with a 3-2 lead against a team he had not blown a save against in his 16 previous chances, would surrender a game-tying home run to Scott leading off the ninth.

And to the encouragement of Yankees fans, Andy Pettitte's return to the mound after a two-month absence could be termed nothing but an unqualified success. His six innings of three-hit, one-run ball were the best part of a terribly unsatisfying day in which the Yankees not only ended a nine-game road trip on a down note, but more importantly, squandered a chance to put another crucial game between themselves and Tampa Bay, which comes to the Bronx still a mere half-game back.

"It was a tough road trip,'' Girardi said. "We had some tough losses but basically the good thing is, we won the series and we're headed home.''

The day was actually more puzzling than troubling, considering Girardi's mantra for the past couple of days, which has been that getting his guys healthy for the postseason -- especially Teixeira, Rodriguez and Nick Swisher -- is more important than just about anything else, including finishing atop the AL East.

"I've said all along you can't risk the health of your players just for home-field advantage, it doesn't make a lot of sense,'' Girardi said on Friday. "We're still playing to win every game, but I don't think you change your principles. I think if you could have one or the other, I think the health of your team is better than home-field advantage.''

So why, then, did he decide to abandon that certainly reasonable philosophy for a goal as modest as winning a game against the last-place Baltimore Orioles? To borrow the man's own line, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

A-Rod, of course, was barely in the game and still technically had his day of rest. But how can you say at noon that Teixeira will benefit greatly from yet another day off -- and then yank that day off out from under him four hours later? By Tex's own admission, he has been playing in a great deal of pain from both his broken right pinkie toe and the deep bone bruise on his right thumb. What was the point of negating the effect of his respite, especially when it was obvious Buck Showalter, at the very least Girardi's equal as a strategist, was going to walk Teixeira anyway, and that you were going to have to send him out into the field for who could predict how many innings?

"If Thames gets the run in, then I can leave Gardy in for defense, that's the thought process there,'' Girardi said. "And if he doesn't get it done, then you have Tex for Gardner. But they intentionally walk him and it just didn't work out.''

Showalter admittedly took a chance walking not just Teixeira but Derek Jeter, too, preferring to load the bases and pitch to the slow-footed Lance Berkman. That, too, could have backfired but Showalter got exactly what he wanted when Berkman bounced into a rally-killing double play.

"I got a good pitch to hit but I just missed, it, got on top of it,'' Berkman said of his high chopper to third baseman Robert Andino. "When I hit it, I didn't think they could turn it but I guess they made a good turn at second.''

The messy endgame nearly overshadowed all the good that preceded it. Not only did Pettitte show impressive command and increasing velocity as the game went on, he showed his injured groin to be fully healed in the first inning when he performed a split fielding Adam Jones' squeeze bunt that drove in the only run scored off him.

"I wasn't expecting a two-out bunt from their four-hole hitter with a runner at third base,'' Pettitte said. "And I slipped, my left foot went right out, the dirt moved on me. That was about as good a test as I was gonna get right there.''

And he passed it, along with just about any other test the Yankees would have liked to see. After struggling in the first two innings, he needed just 10 pitches each to negotiate the third and fourth innings, retired the last 11 batters he faced, limited the Orioles to just one hit out of the infield -- Brian Roberts' single leading off the game -- and threw just 79 pitches, well within his 85-pitch limit.

If the game could have ended right there, after six innings, the Yankees' day would have been a huge success. But Rivera, who had saved 68 of Pettitte's 240 major league victories -- they are the most successful starter-closer combination in baseball history -- blew this one, the sixth time he has cost Pettitte a win but the first since 2007.

"It's unacceptable,'' Rivera said. "Andy pitched tremendous but I didn't do my job and everything fell after that.''

The one who fell the hardest was the Yankees' manager, who in trying too hard to win this one, may have made it that much harder for his team to win the next four.

GAME NOTES: After being groomed first as the next Rivera, later as a starter and most recently, as the eighth-inning set-up man, Joba Chamberlain was yesterday reduced to a one-batter specialist. He did his job, coming on to strike out Jones in the seventh before giving way to Boone Logan. ... Kerry Wood had a rare bad outing, allowing the Orioles to pull within a run in the eighth by allowing two hits, including Felix Pie's pinch-hit RBI single. The run was charged to Logan, who was pulled after allowing a bunt single to Corey Patterson leading off the inning. ... Swisher, who proclaimed himself at full speed after getting two hits Saturday night, was quiet after Sunday's game, in which he went 0-for-5 including three strikeouts. ... Monday night's game with the Rays will be preceded by a tribute to the late George Steinbrenner. Frank Sinatra Jr. will sing the national anthem, Joe Torre and Don Mattingly will be in the house, and then the main event: Ivan Nova (1-0, 4.30) vs. RHP Matt Garza (14-8, 3.88). First pitch, 7:05 p.m.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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