Commentary

Girardi managing just fine

Yankees skipper -- 7-2 in his first postseason -- takes second-guessing in stride

Originally Published: October 27, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Joe GirardiAP Photo/Kathy WillensYankees manager Joe Girardi took some heat in the ALCS for his pitching moves.
The most telling glimpse into Joe Girardi's 2009 postseason mindset came a week ago in Anaheim, Calif. It did not occur on a trip to the mound to make a pitching change, or during a between-innings interview with Tim McCarver and Joe Buck.

The scrutiny peaked a day after a 5-4, 11-inning loss to the Angels in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, amid the universal sentiment that Girardi had outsmarted himself and done harm to his team's chances with some questionable bullpen management.

The move that was sliced, diced and dissected above all others came when Girardi lifted David Robertson for Alfredo Aceves, substituting one young righty reliever for another with two out and the bases empty in the 11th. The strategy quickly backfired when Aceves allowed a single to Howie Kendrick and an RBI double to Jeff Mathis to give the Angels an uplifting walk-off victory.

Girardi deserved to be grilled for overmanaging, yet he minimized the fallout by showing an appreciation for the rules of the road. It would have been natural for a manager in his first postseason to assume a defensive posture, but he handled the situation like an adult.

"Yeah, you are under a microscope,'' Girardi said. "But if you manage a game not to be second-guessed, then I don't think you're managing the game correctly.''

In October, "correct'' is in the eye of the beholder. The Yankees have a .778 winning percentage in the playoffs and they've advanced to the World Series for the first time in six years, but the manager has attracted as much attention as the resurgent third baseman or the ace left-hander. That's in part a reflection of burgeoning "social media'' outlets, which allow casual observers to play expert from the comfort of their living rooms in 140 characters or less.

Girardi was questioned for pulling Andy Pettitte after 81 pitches in the Division Series, and for sticking with A.J. Burnett for 89 pitches in the Championship Series. So what else is new?

"They're 7-2,'' an American League scout said of the Yankees. "When would we look at these clubs during the season on a 7-2 run over nine games and look for reasons to butcher the manager? It just doesn't happen. To an extent, we all want to overanalyze a little bit.''

Girardi has made some tough calls this offseason that have escaped scrutiny largely because they've worked. He kept the Burnett-Jose Molina battery intact, at the risk of offending Jorge Posada, because he knows that pitching is paramount in October. Although Burnett has endured some bouts of wildness, he's lasted six innings or more in all three of his starts -- two of them victories -- and his 4.42 ERA is skewed upward by one horrific inning against the Angels.

Girardi also made the correct call by pitching CC Sabathia on short rest against the Angels. Sabathia went 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA against Los Angeles to win the ALCS Most Valuable Player Award, and he appears fresh, in part, because the Yankees did a nimble job of managing his workload down the stretch.

Can Girardi get carried away with his bullpen? No question. In that memorable third game against the Angels, he summoned lefty Damaso Marte for one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, then replaced him with lefty Phil Coke to begin the eighth. True, the Yankees and Angels played back-to-back extra-inning games, but it was nevertheless impressive when Girardi used a staggering eight pitchers twice in three days.

Girardi
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThis Joe Girardi call to the bullpen brought to you by ...
Even when he's not signaling for his bullpen, Girardi loves to visit the mound. When he came out to talk to Pettitte in Game 3 and Vladimir Guerrero followed with a two-run homer, it was natural to wonder if the conference might have disrupted Pettitte's concentration or broken his rhythm.

"I think that's his personality,'' said a National League scout who's watched Girardi throughout the playoffs. "I don't know the guy, but I would guess he's a Type A.''

Managing a team with a $201 million payroll, Girardi has little temptation to fiddle with his lineup choices. Five New York players appeared in 150 games this season, and Alex Rodriguez would have made it six if not for missing a month because of hip surgery.

The Yankees ranked 25th in the majors in sacrifice bunts, but they were 11th in stolen bases and had the third-highest success rate in the game at 80 percent. New York stole 56 bases at home and 55 on the road, so Girardi is just as likely to run even in a venue where homers come in bunches.

In the postseason, he's made some in-game moves that could charitably be described as "unorthodox.'' They include replacing left fielder Johnny Damon with Jerry Hairston Jr. in the middle of an inning and losing his designated hitter, and lifting A-Rod for pinch-runner Freddy Guzman as the Yankees were scrambling to tie the game against Brian Fuentes in the ninth.

Overall, Girardi has found a nice balance between sticking by his players and showing the requisite sense of urgency. He stayed with right fielder Nick Swisher, who was 3-for-29 in the playoffs, when it would have been easy to switch to Hairston in Game 6 against Los Angeles. Swisher went 1-for-3 with a single in the series clincher against the Angels, then laid down a sacrifice bunt in his final at-bat. That's the same Nick Swisher who has seven sacrifice bunts in 3,119 major league plate appearances.

Girardi also bypassed a struggling Phil Hughes in the series clincher and called upon Mariano Rivera to throw two innings and 34 pitches for the save. This is commonly known as "going for the jugular.''

It's no secret that Girardi has a reputation as intense and overly regimented. But he showed a lighter touch in spring training when he canceled a workout and loaded the players on a bus for a field trip to a Tampa pool hall for an impromptu billiards tournament. Girardi won points for a Tom Coughlin-esque ability to assess his management style and ease off the gas pedal.

Swisher calls Girardi "the best manager I've ever played for,'' and during the Yankees' champagne celebration Sunday night, Burnett credited Girardi with emphasizing teamwork and setting a positive tone in the spring. Now Girardi has brought the Yankees to the verge of their first title since 2000. The next round of reviews -- positive or negative -- will depend on how successful he is in navigating that final step.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer