- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Despite their 0-2 record, more than a couple of Yankees are operating at midseason levels. Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are hitting .333. Alex Rodriguez is moving like a kid again at third base. After all the spring training panic, Raul Ibanez has five RBIs already and is on pace to drive in 405 runs this season.
But some of them are performing as if it is still March, or even February: sluggishly, as if they aren't quite sure of what to do yet or how to do it.
Yankee fans, I give you Joe Girardi.
Friday, the Yankees lost to the Rays 7-6, helped in part by a couple of questionable strategic decisions by the manager. Saturday, they lost 8-6 with help from the same place: their own manager's office.
Girardi is certainly not the only one to blame for his team's poor start -- CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Mariano Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda and Clay Rapada can all own a piece of both losses -- but man, the manager certainly has made more than his share of head-scratchers in the first two games of the season.
Friday's opener began with his call for his ace to walk Sean Rodriguez and pitch instead to Carlos Pena and ended with his call to have his incomparable closer walk the bases loaded -- and pitch to Pena. We all remember how those two turned out.
On Saturday, the puzzles began before the game even started when he decided, one game into the season, that Jeter needed a DH day. That put Eduardo Nunez at shortstop, a call that paid immediate dividends when Nunez' first-inning error led to two unearned runs.
But the most puzzling call of all came in the eighth inning, when Girardi chose to have Rapada, the very definition of "lefty specialist'' -- in his career, lefties have batted .153 against him, righties .359/.474/.692 -- stay in the game to pitch to Evan Longoria even after Rapada had failed at his only real responsibility: retiring Pena.
But no. Not only did Girardi not replace Rapada, he didn't even have anyone ready to go. He was determined to stick with his lefty specialist against one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters in the league.
And the one time Girardi rejected his loose-leafs, they came back to burn him as Longoria hit a shot into right-field seats that looked like a home run but was ruled a mere double after replays showed a fan -- an obviously conflicted soul in a Yankees jersey and Rays cap -- had interfered with the flight of the ball on the way down.
But it was just a temporary reprieve, as Matt Joyce, another lefty, poked a two-run single to give the Rays an 8-2 lead and drop the lid on the Yankees' hopes of leaving Tropicana Field a .500 team.
Girardi's explanation of his strategy was perhaps even more baffling than the strategy itself.
"Well, you got Joyce coming up, too, and it's 6-2 and you're down, so, it's the eighth inning,'' he said. "We got a lot of games early on. We got one day off in the first 16 or 17 days. You can't burn these guys out in the first two days.''
In other words, the manager thought a four-run deficit was too much for his high-powered offense to overcome and ran Rapada's jersey -- er, the white flag -- up the pole, not wanting to waste an arm on a game that was already lost.
That strategy made little in the eighth inning and even less in the ninth, when the Yankees scored four runs, three of them on Nick Swisher's home run, and had Rodriguez come up as the tying run only to see him smack one right into the teeth of Joe Maddon's beloved infield shifts for the final out of the game.
Asked if he second-guessed himself when the Yankees pulled within two runs in the ninth, Girardi stuck to his story. "No, because they probably don't use their bullpen the same way, either,'' he said. "You can make the assumption that they do, but they probably don't, either.''
Girardi, however, had no problem making the assumption that had Nunez not booted Desmond Jennings' grounder to start the first inning, Kuroda would have gotten the next two outs and the Rays would not have scored, completely ignoring the reality that every event affects the subsequent events and nothing can be assumed to proceed the same way if any element is changed, a phenomenon known as The Butterfly Effect.
But that turned out to be inconsequential compared with the eighth inning of the second game of the season, when the Yankees manager, who vehemently denied giving up on winning the AL East two seasons ago even after his GM acknowledged it, pretty much admitted he gave up on this one.
Meanwhile, Girardi's counterpart, Maddon, employing no such tortured logic, has given a two-day clinic on how to beat the Yankees.
Saturday night's lesson was remarkably simple and alarmingly effective: Play the shift on Granderson, Teixeira and Rodriguez, and swing at as many first pitches as possible against Kuroda.
The shift killed the Yankees again on Saturday, not only on A-Rod's game-ending grounder up the middle, but an inning earlier, when Teixeira's liner to shallow right, a two-RBI single against a normally configured field, became an inning-ending and back-breaking double play.
Teixeira, who in the spring spoke about going the other way or even laying down a bunt to break the shift but has stubbornly hit into the teeth of it in the first two games, tried to portray what happened to him as the result of luck.
"If you spend all winter looking at numbers, you can convince yourself to play it against everybody,'' he said. "Call me crazy, but I'm surprised people don't play four outfielders sometimes.''
Don't give Maddon any more ideas. At least Girardi, to his credit, recognized that what to Teixeira was luck is actually the residue of design.
"Well, that's why you do spray charts,'' he said. "That's the whole key. You put 'em where they hit the ball most of the time. Sometimes it's going to work out really well. Every once in a while it's not.''
It seems to work all the time against Teixeira, who batted .224 left-handed hitting into the shift last year, and in the first two games Maddon has shown it can be effective against Granderson and A-Rod, too.
As for Kuroda, what the Rays were able to do to him might be even more alarming. A less-than-overpowering pitcher who relies on an array of breaking pitches to complement his 91 mph fastball, Kuroda couldn't put anything over on the Rays, who repeatedly jumped on his first-pitch fastballs, preventing him from reaching into his bag of tricks.
"I really wish I could have continued what I had in spring training,'' said Kuroda, "but all my pitches were a little bit off and I didn't have one pitch I could rely on today, so it was really disappointing.''
If the rest of the hard-hitting AL East, as well as the rest of the league, takes the same approach, things could get really difficult for Kuroda. Now the Yankees are in the position of needing to rely on Phil Hughes, who had an awful 2011 but a very good spring, to help them avoid being swept in the first series of the year against probably their toughest divisional rival.
Girardi cautioned against making too much of two games, and he is right. But he also revealed that in some sense, he, too, is making a lot of these first two.
"Yeah, it's an important game,'' he said of Sunday's finale. "We have a long, long ways to go.''
That statement was another head-scratcher, but in a strange way, one that you could agree with, in both respects.
Joe Girardi has made some questionable decisions in the Yankees' two losses.