The Yankees could not have hoped for more things to go right for them through the first five innings of Game 2 of the American League Division Series Friday night.
They chased Corey Kluber, the probable A.L. Cy Young winner, before he could get through three innings. Edwin Encarnacion, the most powerful bat in the Indians lineup, had already left the game, and possibly the series, an inning earlier with a gruesome looking ankle injury. After a rough start, CC Sabathia had settled down to retire 11 straight hitters.
And after Greg Bird’s two-run home run in the top of the fifth, they held a five-run lead with only 12 outs between them and a tied series heading back to New York.
Only one thing could derail what looked like a steamroller to victory, and it turned out to be in the Yankees own dugout.
Manager Joe Girardi’s decision not to challenge the ruling that Chad Green’s sixth-inning pitch had nicked him on the right hand may go down in Yankees history along with Joe Torre’s decision not to pull his team off the field during the midge attack of 2007.
It may be remembered the way Grady Little’s decision to allow Pedro Martinez to stay in the game in the 2003 ALCS is remembered in Boston, or the way Terry Collins’ decision to allow Matt Harvey to remain in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series is recalled in Flushing.
All of those decisions ended the careers of the managers involved, and this one might end Girardi’s Yankee career, too, especially if they lost Game 3 Sunday night at Yankee Stadium as the result of another questionable move.
Girardi, who came up with a lame excuse – something about not wanting to mess with Chad Green’s “rhythm’’ on Friday – finally, if reluctantly, admitted on Saturday what was obvious to everyone a day earlier.
“I screwed up,’’ he said. “I feel horrible about it.’’
That’s fine. Everyone makes mistakes, even managers being paid $4 million a year.
But there is a bigger issue at work here, and it is this: Friday night’s incident highlights the lack of trust between Girardi and Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ catcher of the future. The odds are Sanchez will be here a lot longer than Girardi, but if somehow the manager manages to survive this firestorm, they will have to work together again for one more year at least.
And after what happened Friday, added to everything else that has gone on between the two this season, you wonder if they really can.
Yes, there was an extenuating circumstance to Girardi’s missed opportunity Friday night. The super slow-mo replay Brett Weber, his video coordinator, was waiting to see for conclusive evidence is always notoriously slow to cue up, and apparently was not available within the 30 second window a manager has in order to request a review.
But the fact that Girardi felt he needed to see that replay emphasizes the main flaw in his management style, a rigidity that relies far too much on statistics, spray charts and videotape and far too little on his baseball instincts and gut.
In a way, he is like a driver who can’t back out of his own driveway without a rear-view camera or navigate his way to work without the help of a GPS. Somewhere along the way, Girardi – like a lot of modern managers, I would suspect – has lost trust in his own instincts because of an over-reliance on technology.
But his loss of trust in Sanchez might turn out to be even more serious.
Although the manager denied it vehemently during his Saturday press availability at Yankee Stadium – “It has nothing to do with trusting a player, it’s having conclusive evidence to change something’’ – it is fair to wonder what would have happened if, say, Derek Jeter had advised Girardi to challenge a close call. Would he have waited to see a replay or get the thumbs-up from Brett Weber?
In fairness, Jeter had 20 Hall of Fame caliber seasons and Sanchez has had all of 177 big-league games. But the relationship between manager and catcher is a lot more problematic than many of you know, and Girardi’s decision to ignore Sanchez’ entreaties – which dovetailed perfectly with a lack of any display of pain by Chisenhall – is indicative of a serious lack of trust there, especially since Girardi had two challenges available to him as per post-season rules.
(I have heard the theory that Girardi was not aware he had two challenges, and one of his quotes on Saturday – “Now, knowing that I had two challenges, in hindsight, yeah, I wish I would have challenged it’’ – is curious, to say the least, but I find it hard to believe a manager as over-prepared as Girardi would not have known this.)
From the sources I have spoken to, all of which asked not to be quoted because of the sensitive nature of the material, Girardi is in a tough position with Sanchez. He loves his bat and arm – and hates, I am told, just about everything else about his catching. He knows he needs Sanchez’ bat in the lineup, but as an ex-catcher, he is frustrated by Sanchez’ slowness to improve behind the plate.
According to one source, who has spent plenty of time in the Yankees clubhouse, several of Sanchez’ teammates dislike throwing to him because of his pitch-calling, the way he sets up and his difficulty in blocking pitches in the dirt, which is a vital part of the repertoire of both Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray (neither of whom were a source for this story).
Another source, who is not uniformed Yankee personnel but has great access to every aspect of the team, confirmed all of the above complaints and added a few more. Some in the Yankees organization are concerned that Sanchez cares way too much about his offense and way too little about his defense.
And the source told me of a possible reason for why Sanchez led the major leagues with 16 passed balls this season: “He sometimes forgets what pitch he called. That’s why he gets crossed up so often. And that’s why you see so many mound visits when he catches.’’
Tanaka, who has the unenviable task of preventing an Indians sweep in Game 3 Sunday night, denied any reluctance to throw his out-pitch, the splitter, with runners on base and Sanchez behind the plate.
“He caught me a whole lot and there’s going to be mistakes that are going to happen,’’ Tanaka said. “It’s part of baseball. But I have the full confidence and trust in Gary Sanchez. So I’m going to go full-on. I’m not going to hold anything back up on that mound.’’
If only Girardi had assumed the same attitude in the dugout on Friday.
But his indecisiveness, his reliance on gimmicks over gut, and his inability to fully trust the man who will be behind the plate for many Yankees teams to come caused him to hold back on the one decision he should have made in Game 2.
It cost the Yankees a game they had no business losing, and odds are it will wind up costing them the series.
Whether it winds up costing Girardi his job remains to be seen.
But a prospect that seemed unheard of after his brilliant managing job in the wild-card game against the Twins on Tuesday has suddenly become very real after his screw-up on Friday.
And whether he wants to admit it or not, it wasn’t a matter of technology. It was a matter of trust.