For the second time in just over a week, Joe Girardi’s bewildering managerial decisions gift wrapped a series finale to a division rival. As a result, Boston escaped from the Bronx with a vital split, and the Yankees forfeited an opportunity to further bury the Red Sox and increase the pressure on the struggling Rays.
For six innings, the game was dominated by the strong pitching of Jon Lester and Phil Hughes. The Red Sox nickel and dimed Hughes for two runs in a 37-pitch second inning, but after limiting the damage, the young Yankees righty rebounded to retire 14 of the final 15 batters he faced. Meanwhile, Lester kept the Yankees hitless until an Austin Kearns single in the fifth and carried a shutout into the seventh inning.
After Jorge Posada led off the seventh with a single, bad luck intervened when a Marcus Thames opposite field drive bounced off the very top of the wall. Had Girardi used a pinch runner for Posada, a run would have scored, but instead the plodding catcher only reached third base. Lester then loaded the bases by hitting Kearns with a pitch, but not before some more bad luck befell the Yankees. Two pitches before taking a ball off the foot, Kearns lofted a deep foul fly down the left field line that Ryan Kalish almost snagged by leaping into the stands. Had he made the catch, Posada would have scored and Thames may have advanced to third. Instead, the subsequent HBP loaded the bases and set the stage for Girardi’s ill conceived game management.
Curtis Granderson has not hit well against lefties over his entire career. This season, he is batting .212/.250/.283 against southpaws, many of which aren’t the caliber of Jon Lester. So, with the game on the line, the situation screamed for one of two strategies: using a pinch hitter for Granderson or employing a safety squeeze. The ideal candidate to pinch hit would have been Brett Gardner. Despite also being a lefty, Gardner sports an OBP of .375 against southpaws. What’s more, Gardner’s strikeout percentage of 22% against lefties is significantly lower than Granderson’s 27.1%. In other words, every indicator pointed toward making this switch.
Another sound strategy would have been to have Granderson remain in the game and attempt a safety squeeze. Even with the slow footed Posada at 3B, a well executed bunt would have carried with it an element of surprise, especially with the inexperienced Mike Lowell manning first base. Besides, even if the Red Sox were able to force Posada at the plate, the strategy would still have removed the slowest runner from the bases. Compared to letting Granderson swing away against a dominant lefty like Lester, the possibility of a beneficial outcome resulting from a safety squeeze seemed to be much greater.
As we all know, Girardi opted for the worst alternative and paid the price when Granderson struck out on four pitches. In the post game, Girardi defended the decision because he thought Granderson had good at bats off Lester earlier in the game. Those “good at bats” were harmless fly balls, however. Considering that the situation called for keeping the ball out of the air, Girardi had to know that Lester would pitch Granderson much differently? Then again, maybe not. After all, Girardi’s response to being questioned on his decision was to ask “where I am supposed to go there”?
After Granderson struck out, Terry Francona called on Danial Bard, who then promptly blew away Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher. By failing to strike at that key moment in the ball game, Girardi hand delivered to Francona the matchups that he needed to extricate his team from the inning and potentially save their season.
Following their missed opportunity in the seventh, the Yankees finally broke through when Mark Teixeira belted a titanic homerun against Bard, after which Arod lined a single up the middle. Girardi once again raised eyebrows by removing his cleanup hitter from the game in favor of Gardner. Now, if he had Gardner going on first move, the strategy may have made some sense. Of course, everyone is well aware of Gardner’s reticence to run in such situations, so it came as no surprise that he remained anchored at first and only advanced when Robinson Cano grounded out weakly to the second baseman. The ill-fated decision had further repercussions later on in the inning when the absence of Gardner’s bat on the bench forced Girardi to let Kearns face Papelbon. One pitch later, the rally was thwarted.
The Yankees came within inches of sending the Red Sox to Toronto nine games behind in the loss column, but the real reason the Yankees lost the series finale was because their manager completely botched two late game situations. Girardi obviously has his strengths as a manager, and his players seem to like his clubhouse style, but his increasingly bewildering game management decisions continue to cost his team in important situations. Hopefully, they don’t wind up costing them the A.L. East division title.