- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After six innings at the Target Center on Tuesday, the New York Yankees were indisputably, irreversibly playoff-bound.
An inning later, they were Binder-bound.
And now, they are still bound to the Baltimore Orioles, a mere 1-1/2 games separating the two in the race for the AL East with eight games left to play.
Now, a race that finally could have had some air pumped into it -- a Yankees victory would have given them their biggest lead in nearly a month, 2½ games over the Orioles, losers Tuesday night to the Toronto Blue Jays -- remains up for grabs and very much in doubt.
The odds and the remaining schedule still favor the Yankees, but their inability to definitively pull away a stubborn pursuer leaves open all sorts of possibilities for last-minute disaster. Sort of like the ballgame they blew Tuesday night.
"Well, you know what's in front of you and you know you have an opportunity to pick up another game, so yeah, it's a tough one, you know," a rueful Joe Girardi said after the Yankees had blown a 3-1 lead to lose to the Minnesota Twins, 5-4. "But you gotta move on."
The Yankees' manager really had no one to blame but himself on this one. Well, himself, Boone Logan and his reflexive, almost obsessive tendency to play every game by the book. Or, more accurately, by The Binder.
The situation was as follows: Phil Hughes, who has been up-and-down for much of the season in spite of his 16-13 record, was most definitely up on this night. He had held the toothless Twins to one run and four hits through six innings. With the lineup he was facing, the Yankees' 3-1 lead looked like money.
But now, Hughes was in some trouble in the seventh. The Twins got a leadoff single from Ryan Doumit. Chris Parmelee then worked out a 10-pitch walk. After a popout, Jamey Carroll hit one into the hole at short that a diving Derek Jeter kept from going through. It saved a run, but still went for an infield hit.
But with the bases loaded and one out, Hughes battled back from a 3-1 count to blow a fastball by Pedro Florimon for the second out. That left Hughes at 99 pitches and only Denard Span, who had grounded out weakly in his three previous at-bats, standing between Hughes and en epic escape.
Enter The Binder.
Span is a left-handed hitter. Logan, who was warming up in the bullpen, is a "left-handed specialist." And Girardi, for all his attributes, is at times a knee-jerk manager. This was one of those times.
He chose to pull Hughes, who had handled Span, and go to Logan simply because it was one of those late-game lefty-lefty matchups the manager loves so much.
Often, they work out. But this one was doomed from the outset.
Logan's first pitch, a slider, hit home plate and skipped past Russell Martin for a wild pitch. One run scored to cut the lead to 3-2 and the remaining runners moved up.
Four pitches later, Logan did it again, and only the efforts of Martin kept the Twins from tying the game right there.
It didn't stop there. After Logan walked Ben Revere, another lefty, Girardi left him in to pitch to Joe Mauer, yet another lefty. Mauer lined another Logan slider into right, bringing home the Twins' fifth run of the game and sealing the fates of Hughes and the Yankees for the night.
Afterward, Girardi explained his decision in a variety of ways. Hughes had worked a tough inning. The fact that he had missed high with his fastball a few times was a sign to Girardi his starter was tiring.
And besides, Logan had had "a ton of success" in his career against Span.
In fact, Span had never gotten a hit off Logan. In four career at-bats. That is practically the definition of a small sample size.
And it is a classic example of how a manager who lives by his books can on some nights die by them.
Hughes, for his part, did his best to hide his dismay at being yanked from an inning he felt fully capable of finishing.
Martin gallantly tried to take the bullet for his manager, and for Logan, by contending that the wild pitch, which he insisted was all his fault, "changed the complexion of the inning."
And Logan acknowledged what was plain to see from anywhere in the park, that his slider, his normally reliable out-pitch, was anything but on this night.
It could be, as Martin said, that the wild pitch "gave the other team life." It could be that after 77 appearances, mostly in late-inning lefty-on-lefty matchups, Logan is starting to show signs of wear. It could be that even against a team as hopeless as the Twins, three runs out of the Yankees' offense is simply not enough. (Andruw Jones added a pinch-hit solo homer in the ninth for the final run, but that was just cosmetics.)
But the real truth lied in the manager's decision to go away from what was happening on the field -- sticking with Hughes was probably his best bet at escaping the inning without further damage, and the game with an important victory -- and go with what his numbers and charts told him should be happening.
Once the full story of this season is written, that decision might turn out to mean nothing. Or it might turn out to be the most memorable decision of a season that might yet end badly.
"Because the inning was so long and he had to work so hard and Boonie had done a good job against Span in his career, I just decided to go there," Girardi said. "It didn't work."
In fairness, it easily could have and it would hardly have been mentioned in the story of a routine Yankees victory.
But this was anything but a routine Yankees loss, in a season that is hurtling toward anything but a routine finish.
The funny thing is, this one seemed headed to a foregone conclusion after Nick Swisher belted a pitch from Twins starter Esmerling Vasquez off the facing of the second deck in right for a two-run homer, his 24th of the season, in the fourth inning. Martin followed with a shot into the bullpen beyond the center-field wall in the seventh.
The way Hughes had pitched to that point, a two-run Yankees lead looked as safe as 10 runs.
"It was tough, it was really tough to watch," Hughes said. "Not just from the standpoint of wanting to be out there, but also we wanted to win this game. It was a big game. So it was difficult."
Asked if he felt he had enough left to finish what he had started in the seventh inning, Hughes said, "I was hoping so. But I don't make those decisions. I just do what I'm told to."
Sometimes, no one individual makes those decisions. Sometimes, they are made by The Binder.
And sometimes The Binder is bound to fail.
Joe Girardi really had no one to blame but himself for Tuesday night's loss.