- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- No matter how many pages Joe Girardi flipped in his trusty looseleaf, no matter how many matchup charts he studied or moves he tried to make, you knew the Yankees' season would come down to this: Jose Valverde at one end, Alex Rodriguez at the other, perhaps the two most despised men in Yankee Stadium in a showdown to decide which team would go to the American League Championship Series and which would go home.
The numbers were on Girardi's side -- A-Rod was 2-for-5 lifetime against the Tigers' cocky, erratic closer -- but the odds were not.
Girardi had prodded, cajoled and nursed this team to where it was now -- within one two-run homer of going to the semifinal round -- but there was only one more out to work with and no one on base.
And when Rodriguez swung through Valverde's 94 mph 1-2 fastball, not one honest person in Yankee Stadium could truly say they were surprised.
There was a reason Girardi spent most of Game 5 managing as if he had a case of St. Vitus Dance, changing pitchers as if there was a revolving door on the bullpen -- because in the end, his team wasn't quite good enough, and he seemed to know it.
"I didn't necessarily think it was a hard game to manage," Girardi said. "It's a hard game to swallow."
There was irony in the fact that the pitching, the supposed weakness of this team from February to October, turned out to be a strength. And the supposed strength, the offense, about which there had never been a question, turned out to be its ultimate weakness.
Losing a playoff game 3-2 may not be an uncommon occurrence -- as every manager from Connie Mack to Robin Ventura will tell you, pitching rules the postseason -- but for a team as loaded as the Yankees to manage just two runs, one of them forced in by a bases-loaded walk, in the most important game of the year in front of a juiced-up home crowd certainly is.
And also, unacceptable.
So before you start to kill Joe Girardi about the paralyzing sight of Jose Valverde performing his victory dance over the grave of the Yankees' season, on the mound at Yankee Stadium, consider the possibility that Joe Looseleafs managed the way he did because he knew that it was truly his team's only chance to avoid defeat.
From the second inning, when he pulled Ivan Nova after his rookie starter came up with soreness inside his right elbow, Girardi was managing as if this was going to be a one-run game, and he wasn't at all sure whether his offense was going to be able to win it.
That is why, even though Nova felt he could continue and had just followed a horrible first inning with a better second one, Girardi went straight to Phil Hughes. And at the first sign of trouble with Hughes, to Boone Logan. And as soon as he reasonably could, to his trump card, CC Sabathia.
All season long, Girardi had had to wheedle victories out of his aging roster -- by systematically resting his regulars, by staggering his pitching rotation to give his fragile starters an extra day of rest here and there, and by scrupulously (and sometimes maddeningly) playing matchups with the assorted pieces in his bullpen.
Now he was trying to wheedle himself one more victory with a roster that was simply not up to it.
Nova had allowed back-to-back first-inning home runs even before he felt the twinge in his elbow, so it was obvious he wasn't going to be long for the game. Hughes, removed from the starting rotation in mid-September, hadn't thrown more than 1 1/3 innings in any game since Sept. 12, so he wasn't going to last long, either.
Logan, of course, is a "left-handed specialist" who is often unable to perform his specialty. And, workhorse that he is, Sabathia had thrown 106 pitches in a losing effort just three days before.
It took quite a bit of managerial maneuvering to jockey those pieces, as well as working in Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, and wind up holding the Tigers to just one more run, allowed by Sabathia, after Nova's damaging first inning.
Meanwhile, across the field, Jim Leyland was so confident of his own team's chances that he didn't even bother to suit up his own ace, Justin Verlander.
It makes you wonder whether deep down, Girardi knew that his team -- the $200 million "underdogs" -- had in fact overachieved all season, and realized that its expiration date was about to come up.
"Our guys played hard," Girardi said. "I can't ask for anything more from them over the course of the season. Obviously, this is a terrible day for us. But some days you just get beat."
Whether that explanation will wash with the legions of Yankees fans who have been conditioned to recognize only two outcomes -- World Series parade or failure -- remains to be seen.
Fans tend to expect players to perform like machines, especially when they are being paid salaries that rival NASA's yearly operating budget.
But the truth is, despite their 97 wins and their AL East championship over the highly touted and truly underachieving Boston Red Sox, the Yankees showed cracks and vulnerabilities all season long -- flaws that kept getting plastered over as they continued to cobble together victories.
It was only in the postseason, facing a team with a strong, deep starting rotation and a closer who, despite his nightly high-wire act, managed to remain perfect all season long, that the Yankees' cracks were exposed for all to see.
"I think there was a lot of questions as we exited spring training, and I think over time those questions got answered with real legitimate contributors," GM Brian Cashman said. "This team got stronger and mentally tougher along the way and showed themselves as a formidable opponent for a world championship."
That, of course, is not good enough for the New York Yankees -- a fact Cashman admitted and will next have to explain to his bosses when he sits down to learn his future.
Because there really is no excuse for the team that led baseball in home runs and was second in runs scored and slugging percentage to load the bases with one out, as the Yankees did in the seventh inning Thursday night, and come away with just one run -- forced in by a walk to Mark Teixeira, who otherwise had another miserable postseason, batting .167.
Even worse, Teixeira was preceded by Rodriguez, who struck out, and followed by Nick Swisher, who did the same. A-Rod finished the ALDS with a batting average of .111 -- up from the .071 he hit against the Tigers in 2006, the series in which Joe Torre dropped him to eighth in the batting order. By comparison, Swisher, with his .211 batting average, was raking.
But even worse was the ninth inning, when the Yankees trailed by that single run and had Curtis Granderson (a 41-home run hitter in the regular season and a legitimate MVP candidate), Robinson Cano (the team's best all-around hitter and another MVP contender) and A-Rod coming up against Valverde, who had already publicly thrown it down to the Yankees and their fans after Game 2, saying the series would not return to the Bronx.
But although Cano hit the ball well -- a line out to center field -- Granderson's fly out to left was puny, and A-Rod's strikeout was, in a word, pathetic.
Can't blame the manager for any of that. In fact, he deserves some of the credit for even keeping the Yankees close enough to have a glimmer of hope in that ultimately hopeless ninth inning.
"Tonight, if we were one at-bat better, we might win the game," Teixeira said, parroting the line of inferior teams throughout history.
"We felt good going into that ninth inning," Derek Jeter said. "Those are the guys you want coming to the plate. We still feel good. I mean, you just want to get somebody on base and you never know what's going to happen."
"This one especially stings," said Rodriguez, who heard boos as he left the field for the last time in 2011. "It's just unbelievable. Unbelievable."
From the outside looking in, it certainly seems unbelievable that the New York Yankees -- the Alex Rodriguez-Robinson Cano-Derek Jeter-Curtis Granderson New York Yankees -- could lose by a single run to a middle-market team from a nondescript Midwestern city with only one 30-home run hitter and no one with more than 105 RBIs.
But inside the dugout, Joe Girardi seemed to understand that on this night, a one-run lead might be as insurmountable as a 10-run lead.
That is why he managed this game the way he did. Unfortunately for him, his team couldn't manage to win it.
Joe Girardi did all he could, but in the end some of his best players let him down.