Joe Girardi did not exactly get a warm welcome home to Yankee Stadium for Sunday night’s Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians.
During the pre-game introductions, the Yankees manager was booed as if he were a member of the visiting team, or worse, Alex Rodriguez in his first game back from his year-long drug suspension.
It is not the kind of reception anyone in pinstripes can expect to get in the Bronx, unless, of course, everyone in town believes that you blew a winnable Game 2 and were about to lead your team into a humiliating series sweep in its own ballpark.
Never mind that this was supposed to be a “transitional’’ — don’t use the word “rebuilding’’ — year for the Yankees, and while the roster had gotten younger and more athletic, few if any expected this team to develop into a serious contender for another year or so.
The problem was, you see, that the new-look Yankees had arrived sooner than expected, and in this town, once you’ve arrived, you’re expected to stick around awhile.
Somehow, Girardi had kept his developing team in the A.L. East race right up to game 161 of the regular-season, and had managed brilliantly in the one-game wild-card play-in against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, making the gut-wrenching decision to pull his ace, Luis Severino, just 1/3 of an inning into the game, and trusting his bullpen to get the remaining 26 outs.
But that glory was fleeting. It lasted only as long as it took him to hesitate just long enough to miss out on a chance to challenge a controversial hit-by-pitch call on the Indians Lonnie Chisenhall, and two pitches later, what had been shaping up as a glorious night – the Yankees had beaten up on Corey Kluber, CC Sabathia had stifled the Indians lineup, and Edwin Encarnacion was out for the game abnd probably the series with an ankle injury – turned disastrous when Chad Green surrendered a grand slam homer to Francisco Lindor.
Girardi had committed a manager’s mortal sin that night, the sin of indecisiveness.
So no matter how psyched the sell-out crowd of 48,614 at Yankee Stadium tried to present itself as, the truth is that many had come expecting to attend a funeral, with the Yankees as murder victim and their manager the killer.
“I kind of expected it, you know,’’ Girardi said of the booing, which was loud, long and to him, probably painful. “I’ve seen them boo players and managers that have a lot more status than I do. So I was prepared for it.’’
Girardi said he had prepared his wife and kids for it, too, but nothing can really prepare a man to be assaulted in his own living room.
Still, Girardi shrugged it off and wound up managing, perhaps, the game of his life.
This was not like Tuesday night, when he and his team went into emergency mode before one inning had been played, and it was not like Thursday’s Game 1, when his starter, Sonny Gray, had little and the Yankees could do nothing with Trevor Bauer.
And it was certainly not like Friday, when the only thing that could have derailed a pivotal Yankees victory was something truly unforeseen, like a managerial choke job.
You would think a man who had just come through a game like that, and its aftermath, a painful Saturday press conference in which Girardi had finally, if reluctantly, admitted it had been a mistake not to challenge the call, and left some observers scratching their heads over whether he even knew how many challenges a manager was allotted in the post-season, might go into an elimination game managing scared.
Managing not so much to win, as not to lose. Managing as if afraid to make a mistake.
Managing, as Joe Girardi may be right now, to save his job.
But Girardi did not do any of those things.
For seven innings, Girardi managed game No. 166 of the Yankees season as if it were just another mid-season game on the schedule, sitting back and watching Masahiro Tanaka, who has had an up-and-down season, have a very much up night against the Indians, holding them scoreless on three hits.
And for the final two innings, Girardi managed the game for what it really was – possibly the last game of his team’s season, as well as his last game as the Yankees manager.
“This is what happens in life,’’ Girardi said after he and the Yankees had begged, borrowed and cajoled a 1-0 victory over the Indians to breathe one more day of life into this series; Game 4 is Monday night at 7 p.m. “It happens in the game as a player, it happens as a manager. It happens at home with your wife and children. I’m always going to do my best, but everything you do is not always going to be perfect.’’
On this night, nearly everything Girardi did was perfect, or close enough. Managers don’t get to take curtain calls, but if they did, he would have merited one Sunday night. Unlike Friday night, there was nothing indecisive about Joe Girardi in this one, and also unlike Friday, every decision he made turned out to be the right one.
Tanaka had cruised through his seven innings and was at just 92 pitches following a season in which he routinely went over 100 and on four occasions, over 110. But with a 1-0 lead provided by Greg Bird’s seventh inning home run, Girardi decided to trust his bullpen to get the final six outs.
For a manager who swears by his “formula’’ – in this case, David Robertson to pitch the eighth and closer Aroldis Chapman the ninth – and often seem unable to deviate from pre-determined plans, it seemed as if the rest of the game was already mapped out.
But after Robertson walked Michael Brantley, the second batter he faced, and Indians manager Terry Francona sent up the lefty-hitting Chisenhall as a pinch-hitter to face Robertson, this most rigid of managers decided to leave the playbook.
He summoned Chapman for a rare five-out save. And in the kind of knee-jerk move Girardi is often accused of making, Francona countered by sending the right-handed hitting Yan Gomes to replace Chisenhall. Girardi, who is as addicted to his splits and spray charts as Edward R. Murrow was to cigarettes, could not have asked for a more favorable matchup; in last year’s World Series, Gomes had come to the plate four times – and had the misfortune of facing Chapman all four. He went 0-for-4 against him, with two strikeouts and a double play.
The matchup ran true to form; Chapman struck out Gomes on three pitches, two of them clocked at 102 MPH. Then he punched out Giovanny Urshela to end the inning.
The ninth would have melted the ice water in any manager’s veins; after striking out Lindor for the first out, Chapman allowed singles to Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez, the second an infield hit that Todd Frazier made a diving stop on. Jay Bruce, who had tied Friday’s game with a home run to send it into extra innings, came to the plate with a chance to torment Girardi and the Yankees once again, and provide some vicarious pleasure to Mets fans in the process.
But Chapman struck him out on a 100 MPH fastball, after running a full-count to Carlos Santana, got him to fly out to fairly deep centerfield to end the game.
No doubt Girardi’s pulse, which must run to about 40 beats a minute considering the amount of CrossFit he does every day, had been racing until that ball finally settled into Aaron Hicks’ glove.
With his contract expiring at the end of the season, a loss Sunday night could have spelled the end of his 10-year run.
“I’ve never worried about that,’’ he said. I”’ve never worried about my future. I worry about other peoples’ future but not my own. I believe the man upstairs is in charge of me and whatever happens, happens. That’s Hal (Steinbrenner) and Brian Cashman’s) decision. Whatever their decision is, you know, I’ll live with.’’
For now, Joe Girardi and the Yankees live to fight another day. How that day will go, no one can predict. Bauer, who stifled the Yankees in Game 1, will come back on three days rest for Game 4. The Yankees will counter with Severino, who needs to prove he can handle the pressure of the post-season, as well as bounce back from his worst performance of the season.
But this much you can be reasonably sure of: When the teams line up on the foul lines for the opening introductions Monday night, Joe Girardi might just feel like Yankee Stadium is home again, something that hardly seemed possible just a day before.