Commentary

Girardi botches ninth vs. White Sox

Instead of calling on Robertson, manager's 'mix-and-match' puts Yanks in a mess

Updated: June 29, 2012, 10:23 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The following column is being written with the approval and blessing of Joseph Elliott Girardi, the manager of the New York Yankees.

"Look, you guys can second-guess me all you want," Girardi says to me in a darkened hallway off the interview room at Yankee Stadium, where he has just attempted to explain the reasoning behind the use of his bullpen in the ninth inning of Thursday night's game against the Chicago White Sox, which led directly to a heart-stopping 4-3 loss.

"I got a double-play ball," he continues. "What else can we do?"

I have a few ideas. But first, a translation.

What Girardi meant was that his decision to bypass David Robertson, who was his closer until May 15, in favor of cobbling together the ninth inning of a two-run game -- the Yankees went into the frame leading 3-1 after Mark Teixeira's solo home run in the eighth -- out of situational relievers Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada was the right one.

It was Rapada, not the binder, that screwed up when the lefty sidewinder threw a potential double-play comebacker into center field, giving the White Sox two runners on, none out, and forcing Girardi into doing something he said he hoped to avoid, which was using Robertson to pitch the entire ninth inning.

He was worried, the manager said, about Robertson's readiness to go on consecutive days since coming back from an oblique strain 15 days ago.

His fears turned out to be justified when Robertson grooved his second pitch, a fastball that leaked over the plate, to Dayan Viciedo, who hit it into the left-field seats for what turned out to be the game-winning homer.

And his fears turned out to be groundless as Robertson wound up pitching the rest of the ninth inning anyway, getting all three outs without apparent discomfort.

"I'm still being cautious with him, just because we've used him back-to-back twice," Girardi said. "I don't think he's quite back, we don't think he's quite back to where he was, and we're being cautious."

[+] EnlargeDavid Robertson
AP Photo/Kathy WillensDavid Robertson reacts while Dayan Viciedo rounds the bases after his ninth-inning homer.

This came as news to Robertson, a normally pleasant and chatty fellow who was as tight-lipped as Eddie Murray in his surly prime when questioned at his locker after the game.

"I feel fine," Robertson said. "Absolutely fine. Really good. I haven't had any problems since I came back."

Had Girardi discussed his desire to be cautious with Robertson?

"Uh, no," Robertson said.

Asked if he expected to come in at the start of the ninth, Robertson said, "I thought I would, yeah, but … look, it's not my decision, so …"

Robertson stopped himself before he could say anything he might regret, but if looks count for anything, he was as upset as any Yankees fan with the way things turned out in that ninth inning, and only partially because he gave up the home run and took the loss.

Almost as inexcusable as what Girardi did to Rapada -- which was publicly blame him for a loss that really should be shared by the manager -- was what he did to Robertson, thrusting him into a situation not of his making in which he had no margin for error.

If you think that shouldn't matter -- after all, Robertson didn't earn the nickname Houdini for nothing -- consider the words of the escape artist himself. "I would definitely say it's a little tougher," Robertson said of inheriting someone else's mess as opposed to cleaning up your own. "You get a clean inning, you got the opportunity to maybe get an out and allow a walk or something like that, or even give up a base hit and find your way out of it, because you kinda got a rhythm on the mound."

On this night, before Robertson could even find his rhythm, he had made the mistake that cost the Yankees the game. In the box score, at least.

"It stinks, you know?" he said. "We had the game right there. I made one bad pitch and they made me pay for it."

In fairness, Girardi's use of his bullpen has been mostly exemplary, and sometimes brilliant since Mariano Rivera went down for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee on May 3 in Kansas City.

His first move was to anoint Robertson, who had distinguished himself in the eighth-inning set-up role in 2011, but after he blew a save by allowing a three-run homer to Matt Joyce of the Tampa Bay Rays on May 9, Girardi shifted to Rafael Soriano, in a previous life a successful closer for the Rays who led the AL with 45 saves in 2010.

The decision has worked brilliantly -- Soriano has converted 17 of 18 save opportunities -- and his skillful use of Eppley, Rapada, Boone Logan and Cory Wade before he went bad made the loss of Mariano barely noticeable.

But Girardi was determined not to use Soriano on Thursday night -- he had worked four of the previous five games and showed signs of wear by walking in a ninth-inning run in Wednesday's 5-4 win over Cleveland -- which, logic should tell you, should have elevated Robertson to ninth-inning duty.

Instead, Girardi chose to play managerial jeopardy, hoping to do what he had done a handful of times this season, if that many -- split the ninth inning in a save situation among a couple of pitchers.

He did it on June 11, when, with a 3-0 lead over the Braves, he divided the ninth between Wade and Logan the night after Soriano had blown his only save of the year.

Why he chose to do it this time, only he knows.

"I was going to mix-and-match," he said. "It's the second day in a row again for [Robertson] and I'm just trying to be cautious. It's not like I haven't done it since Mo went down and Robby went down. We've done a lot of mixing and matching and I'm going to continue to do it."

The ninth-inning loss wiped out a serviceable job by Ivan Nova, who was in line for his 10th win of the season after working 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball. Nova was hit hard in several innings -- he needed a double play on a line out to second to save him in the fourth, and there were at least three balls to the warning track in center that Curtis Granderson ran down -- but also made some big pitches when he needed to, most notably a curveball that froze Kevin Youkilis with a runner on second in the seventh, his last pitch of the game.

Girardi used his bullpen deftly in that inning, employing the right-handed Eppley to retire Adam Dunn and then going to Rapada, who ended the inning with a strikeout of Paul Konerko.

At that point, he should have left well enough alone. He had built the bridge to his closer, and he had a pitcher who a little more than a month ago he had decided was capable to fill the large shoes vacated by Rivera. Why he chose not to go to him is a mystery to which only he knows the answer. "It's not the way you want to lose a game, but there are going to be physical errors," Girardi said. "They're going to happen and you have to move on."

Once again, he's right about that.

Only this one was lost on a combination of physical and mental errors, and the manager made one of them.

It's a legitimate issue to second-guess, and I'm sure the manager would approve.

In fact, he already did.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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