Commentary

Joe's lineup gamble comes up craps

Why Girardi decided to roll dice in Yankees' most important game, only he knows

Updated: October 17, 2012, 11:31 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- Joe Girardi is a man of no known vices.

He rarely swears -- a favorite epithet of his is "patootie" -- hardly drinks (he favors an occasional glass of red wine thinned with an ice cube or two), doesn't smoke, works out diligently, keeps his hair jarhead short and is a devoted husband and father.

So why he chose to become a gambler for the most important Yankees game of the season, only he knows. If he really wanted to roll the dice so badly, there's a casino right here in downtown Detroit and a couple across the river in Windsor, Ontario, that would have loved to accommodate his thirst for action.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoe Girardi's failed shot has the Yankees in a 3-0 ALCS hole.

Instead, Girardi chose to roll the bones on his Game 3 lineup, and as they often do, the cubes came up snake eyes.

Facing Justin Verlander and the Tigers, Girardi sent out a lineup minus Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher, both slumping, and that included Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez.

And while one of his moves came up aces -- Nunez's solo home run off Verlander in the ninth inning was the Yankees' first run in the past 19 innings, and the only highlight in the Yankees' 2-1 loss Tuesday night at Comerica Park -- he crapped out with the other.

Not only did Chavez not improve on A-Rod's futility at the plate -- he went 0-for-3 -- but his error on a routine ground ball that you have to believe Rodriguez would have fielded cleanly became the run that has put the Yankees on the brink of elimination from the ALCS, and one loss from the ignominy of being swept in a playoff series for the first time in 32 years.

Chavez backed up on Quintin Berry's bouncer to third, allowed the ball to play him and had it roll away for an error. The next hitter, Miguel Cabrera, smoked a line drive to center that Curtis Granderson -- another candidate for some bench time -- misread. It became an RBI double that provided Verlander with all the runs he would need, if just barely.

"When he hit the ball, I thought it was a lot softer, and I thought I had time to step back, and it had too much topspin," Chavez said. "If I would have known it was hit harder, I probably would have come up and played it on a short hop. I just read it wrong. It wasn't a tough ball where I couldn't make a decision. I had to make a decision, and it was just the wrong one."

Girardi has made some excellent decisions this postseason, notably his use of Raul Ibanez as a pinch hitter for A-Rod in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. Ibanez made Girardi into a genius by homering in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, and again in the 12th to win it.

But since then, it seems to have gotten easier and easier for Girardi to shelve the man with 647 career home runs in favor of lesser players, and no matter what you think of A-Rod right now, he is still better than Chavez; superior both at the plate and in the field.

Rodriguez has had a miserable postseason, but he is hardly alone; Swisher, Granderson and Robinson Cano have been as bad as him, if not worse.

That is what made Girardi's decision to sit A-Rod again, for the second time in the past four games -- he sat out Game 5 against the Orioles, too -- rather curious, especially since the manager, normally a slave to his numbers, chose to ignore the fact that Rodriguez had had extraordinary success against Verlander, even this season.

In his career, Rodriguez's batting average versus the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP award winner was just .267, but he had three home runs off him in 30 at-bats, and carries a .667 average with two homers in just six at-bats against Verlander this season.

Besides, he ended Sunday's Game 2 at Yankee Stadium with good at-bats his last two times up, lining out to left and then singling up the middle. His bat may have been sick, but it seemed to be recovering.

Still, Girardi chose to sit him for this game, and here was his reason: "One of those [at-bats] was off a left-hander. He's had some success off of Verlander but he's struggled off of right-handers. His struggles off of right-handers in the postseason have been trouble, and Chavy's had success off [Verlander] too. So I decided to go with Chavy."

True, Chavez's lifetime average versus Verlander was .360 (9-for-25), and he had homered off him. But that was six years ago, in the 2006 ALCS, when Chavez played for Oakland.

Chavez's error wasn't the only reason the Yankees lost Game 3, nor is it even close to the only reason why their season is now teetering on the brink. But when Nunez belted Verlander's curveball into the Tigers bullpen leading off the ninth, and the Yankees got hits from Mark Teixeira and Cano -- who had been 0-for-29, the longest postseason hitless streak in Yankees history -- off Verlander's replacement, Phil Coke, it loomed as large as anything else that had happened in the game, especially for a group as offensively challenged as this one has been.

[+] EnlargeIchiro
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIchiro Suzuki collected two of the Yankees' five hits in Tuesday's punchless loss to the Tigers.

Now, the Yankees are begging CC Sabathia to pitch them to Thursday. And if he does, they will need Andy Pettitte to pitch them back to Yankee Stadium. And even if all that goes right, a rematch with a fully rested Verlander looms for Game 7 if they get that far.

The bottom line, as the manager likes to say, is that the Yankees now need a four-game winning streak, a daunting task at any point of the season but especially difficult now against a team with the kind of starting pitching the Tigers boast.

That is why Game 3 was so vital for the Yankees' hopes for survival in this series, and against all odds -- Verlander was still throwing 99 mph on his 121st pitch of the game -- they actually had a chance to do it.

Clearly, a shakeup of some sort was in order, but it almost feels as if the manager, despite his objections, has singled out A-Rod as a main cause of his team's power outage.

Rodriguez did not speak to reporters before the game, except to pooh-pooh to ESPNNewYork.com a New York Post report that had him macking two young women in the stands at Yankee Stadium while his team was losing Game 1.

And his reaction to how Game 3 turned out -- Girardi could have sent him up to hit for Ibanez in the ninth inning with lefty Phil Coke on the mound, but he stuck with Ibanez, who struck out to end the game -- is lost to history since he did not appear in the postgame clubhouse.

It could be that the ease with which the manager is able to exclude him from his lineup these days has gotten under his skin. That is a problem for A-Rod and Girardi to work out privately in the offseason.

The problem the Yankees ran into Tuesday night was as public as they come. Girardi shook up his lineup, which didn't work, and in the process also shook up his infield, which worked against him.

And as a result, the Yankees are now 27 outs from what they believe to be a premature end to their season.

And all because Joe Girardi, the man with no discernible vices, chose this day to lay it all on the line on one big roll of the dice.

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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