Commentary

Bombers get major jolt from Joe

Skipper shows fire, gets tossed and sparks lethargic Yankees to victory

Updated: August 9, 2012, 9:05 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- For those of us inclined to view Joe Girardi as a buttoned-up automaton with red-stitched seams hidden under his crew cut, his colorful exit from Thursday's Yankees-Tigers game might have been his finest hour.

For once, he wasn't "G.I. Joe" or "Joey Looseleafs" or "Binder Boy," the guy who is on autopilot in front of a reporter, and at the mercy of his splits, his spray charts and his heat maps in the privacy of the manager's office.

For the five minutes or so that he shouted at, gestured at and lectured the umpires on the field at Comerica Park, culminated by a stage exit complete with waving arms and rolling eyeballs, he was a living, passionate, fire-breathing human being.

It was truly a joy to see.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi, Tom Welke
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireJoe Girardi showed his human side in sticking up for his players Thursday afternoon and getting tossed by umpire Tim Welke.

And when, three innings later, two of his players came through with solo home runs to pull out a dramatic 4-3 win for the Yankees, the method behind "Crazy Joe's" madness became clear.

"Never saw him like that before," catcher Chris Stewart said. "It's good, though. It's good that he's sticking up for us, and you know what, it fired us up, obviously. We took some good swings after that."

For all the talk about how the Yankees were just going through "a little rough spot" -- as if playing .500 ball over the past 32 games can be called little -- the managerial meltdown that occurred before 40,940 live witnesses and another few million following though various electronic methods told another story indeed, that the Yankees' recent struggles were driving at least one guy on the team nuts.

That guy was the manager.

Surely there's no way Girardi really thought umpire Tim Welke was going to reverse himself and make what replays showed was clearly a chalk-kicking double by Andy Dirks into a foul ball. Just as he must have known Welke was not about to take a run off the scoreboard from the Tigers and send Quintin Berry back to third base.

In fact, Girardi wasn't even particularly angry when he came out of the dugout to plead his case, such as it was.

But his anger escalated and the histrionics elevated as he seemingly came to grips with what he was doing out there.

This was a chance for Mr. Spock to morph into Billy Martin and maybe in the process spark his team, which sometimes seems to have adopted his character.

This was as much about winning an argument as about winning a ballgame. And in the process, sending a message.

Whether it worked is open to question -- the quality of the pitching determines the outcome of a baseball game a lot more often than the intensity of a manager's tantrum -- but there's no arguing with the outcome.

Girardi came, saw, screamed, got tossed. And the Yankees, on the verge of losing their third game out of four against the Tigers, went on to win and salvage a split of a series against a possible playoff opponent.

"That was a good argument," said a clearly amused Eric Chavez, whose solo homer off Joaquin Benoit in the eighth provided the Yankees' margin of victory. "He had a case, and when Joe feels strong about something, he's going to go after it. Since I've been here, that's one of the better ones I've seen."

"Joe can lose it with the best of them," said Mark Teixeira, whose home run just preceding Chavez's blast tied the game. "He doesn't do it very often. But when he does, he gets his money's worth."

And this time, his team enjoyed the payoff.

Having lost the first two games of this series and having had to struggle to pull out a 10-8 win Wednesday after taking a 7-0 lead, the last thing the Yankees needed was to lose again Thursday afternoon and limp into Toronto for the weekend with their lead in the American League East reduced to perhaps 3 1/2 games.

And after Hiroki Kuroda, who once again pitched well but got no run support, gave up a two-run homer to Alex Avila in the fifth to tie the game, that seemed like a very real possibility.

But three batters later, with Berry on first, Dirks' dink dropped in front of an onrushing Raul Ibanez and kicked past him to the stands, where Ibanez muffed it again. Berry easily scored from first.

But Girardi had seen what just about everyone in Comerica had seen -- that Welke at first raised both his arms up to signal that the ball was foul, then rapidly reversed himself and began pointing to fair territory.

What followed was the sort of performance art perfected by the likes of Martin and Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver, but rarely engaged in by the tightly controlled Girardi.

"My contention is my outfielder pulled up a little bit," Girardi said. "It only takes a split second for the ball to get by you. And he probably doesn't score and we're in a 2-2 game. Now I can't tell you how the game's going to end up, but at the time, with rain coming, that's a huge play."

Sounds plausible enough, only the replays clearly showed that when Welke made his first, erroneous call, Ibanez was chasing the ball and had his back to the umpire.

So he did not "pull up." Ibanez did, however, contend that the verbal reaction of the crowd -- he said he heard a collective "Ohhhh!" -- led him to think the ball might have been called foul.

But again, the replay showed that he did not seem to slow down in his pursuit of the baseball, and when asked whether he thought he might have had a shot at the runner at home, Ibanez was too honest to offer anything but a smile.

"I should have given myself more room," he said. "I could have made the play if I would have given myself more room."

In fact, just about every Yankee who had a good look at the play thought the ball was fair, and not one, Ibanez included, thought the umpire's quick trigger made any difference in the outcome of the play.

But Girardi's tantrum might have made a difference in the outcome of the game. Not only did the Yankees come up with the winning home runs, they came up with clutch relief performances out of Clay Rapada and David Phelps, and a rare four-out save from Rafael Soriano, who had runners on first and third with none out in the ninth and jammed the next three hitters into popping out.

Girardi didn't take any bows after the game, but he didn't have to. He had already stalked off the field with his arms raised overhead, like a fighter playing to the crowd, a contention he angrily denied.

"I don't play to the crowd," he said. "That's not my personality."

But he was playing to a crowd, a crowd of 25 who he might have felt needed to see how much this spell of bad baseball was eating him up and how much he thought it should be eating them up, too.

"Joe is a great manager, and that's what he does," Ibanez said. "He went out there and he fought for us."

And in the process, he might have reminded the Yankees they need to fight for themselves.

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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