- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The way so many of his players have been going down this season, especially his pitchers, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't take any chances before Monday's series opener against Toronto when he got to the ballpark and saw closer Rafael Soriano, who had taken a hit off his throwing hand the day before in Cleveland.
Girardi pays so much attention to detail he didn't merely ask Soriano how he felt. The manager walked up and gripped Soriano's hand in a handshake, the better to make sure the one bullpen arm the Yanks can least afford to lose didn't flinch, which would've been a sure giveaway that Soriano was hiding how much he was really hurt.
"He's fine," Girardi said before the game.
It's just a small story about Girardi, a little pregame trick of the trade pulled by a two-decade baseball man that could be easy to overlook. But it's also an insight into why Girardi is having his best regular season yet as Yankees manager, if only because he's doing it under the most trying and unique set of circumstances the Yanks have had to deal with in a long time.
And the hurdles just got even higher Monday when first baseman Mark Teixeira limped off the field in mid-game and got an MRI that confirmed he has a Grade 1 calf strain. Teixeira guesses the injury will cost him at least one to two weeks.
The Yanks got that sobering postgame news after the rare shock of seeing Soriano blow a save for only the third time in 36 chances, by coughing up a three-run, two-out homer in the top of the ninth. Derek Jeter temporarily kept the Yanks alive by blasting a game-tying, bottom-of-the-ninth homer against a swooning Toronto Blue Jays team that had lost seven straight, but Derek Lowe's throwing error in the 11th sent the Yankees toward a stinging 8-7 loss.
Bad as the loss was, afterward Girardi was most concerned about losing Teixeira. With Alex Rodriguez still probably a week away from coming back from his broken hand, and the Yanks just beginning what should be a riveting home stretch of the season in which they close by playing 28 of their remaining 34 games against their American League East rivals, you have to wonder how many more of these body blows the Yankees can take.
"For a middle-of-the-lineup guy like that to be out of our lineup, that's a big deal," outfielder Nick Swisher said.
Girardi was asked if he was "fearful" Teixeira's injury could be long lasting. He nodded and said, "Yeah, I mean, calves can be really tricky. It's hard to replace one of your middle-of-the-lineup guys, one of your switch hitters "
Here, Girardi's voice trailed off.
If Girardi's only challenge was to navigate the Yankees' glut of injuries, that would be enough. But there has also been the organization's determination to control payroll, which resulted in the Yanks making no big moves at the trade deadline beyond adding a No. 9 hitter in Ichiro Suzuki. And all of that has happened in the same season that being content with the wild-card spot rather than a division title doesn't apply anymore. Baseball's new rule that requires the two wild-card winners to meet in a one-game playoff has danger written all over it.
"You don't want to be in that one-game playoff scenario," Girardi stressed.
"To me, the most important thing is to win the division."
Girardi catches a lot of grief for his high-strung nature, his devotion to planning, those binders of his that are stuffed full of stats.
But now that the Yanks are still clinging to first place entering the homestretch of the season, this is where Girardi hopes, anyway, that his meticulousness, the way he makes no move that is not deeply deliberated, and his convictions like religiously building in rest days for many of his graybeard players are all going to pay off.
"To me, if you just fly by the seat of your pants all the time, you're going to wear people out," Girardi said.
Having fresh players is nice, all right. But that's not necessarily true if they're not your best players. Losing Teixeira at the same time A-Rod is out could be a grave problem, even if Robinson Cano continued to heat up Monday with two more home runs and Jeter has been hot all season.
Girardi insisted before Monday's game that he's not managing any differently because the Yanks' AL East lead had dwindled in the past month from 10 games to four as of Monday night. Then he went on to challenge the recent insinuations that Tight Joe is starting to resurface, and threatening to overtake the Calm Cool Collected Joe he'd rather project.
But the longer Girardi spoke about it, the more animated he got. And until Monday night he had indeed kept significant parts of his bullpen -- Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley, Joba Chamberlain and Lowe -- on their collective butts for a week as the AL East tightened while asking Boone Logan and David Robertson and Soriano to work longer than usual.
"I'm not planning any more than I did last month," Girardi insisted. "But, you know, it's this question that I get asked a lot. You know, 'Are you going to take your foot off?'
"I don't take my foot off the gas," Girardi scoffed. "That's not my personality, you know. I try to win every game. [Because] you want home-field advantage, you want all that stuff. So, I'm going to manage games like I do every day: to win."
Pretty soon Girardi let it go and again loosened up. After all that went wrong in the game, he was calm, too. He just sighed heavily and said the Yanks will have to get through this latest injury to Teixeira like all the others. But what else is he going to say? It had to help, if only a little, that Tampa, the Yanks' closest pursuer in the AL East, is now playing a road series against a far, far tougher Texas team while the Yanks have two more against last-place Toronto. The Rays fell on Monday too.
But with the loss of Teixeira now and no guarantees how A-Rod or injured starting pitchers Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte are going to come back, Girardi's best season as Yankees manager just got exponentially tougher. There's no plan in the world that presages this many bad things to cornerstone players happening in one season. And none of the Yankees -- neither Girardi nor his players -- tried to downplay that afterward.
"As bad as it is to say, the show must go on," Swisher said.
"But" -- here Swisher sighed, too -- "we've got a lot of work to do."