Commentary

Yankees' most valuable isn't a player

Manager Joe Girardi should be judged more on ALDS sweep than September stumble

Updated: October 10, 2010, 11:33 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- They don't give a Most Valuable Player Award in the Division Series, but if they did, the MVP of the 2010 ALDS wouldn't be a player at all.

This one would have to go to a manager.

He can be maddeningly evasive, comically cautious and about as emotional as Mr. Spock on ice. He is a stats geek and a numbers wonk and looks as if he hasn't enjoyed a decent meal in weeks, and quite possibly, he hasn't.

Yet no one did more to ensure that the New York Yankees would advance to the second round of playoffs, the final hurdle between them and another World Series, than the only Yankee who didn't play for one pitch of any of the three games.

No, not Joba Chamberlain. Joe Girardi did as much to win this ALDS over the Minnesota Twins, which ended with a convincing 6-1 victory Saturday night, as any Yankee on the field, and more than most.

For all the head-scratching we self-styled experts have done over some of his in-game moves and his interview-room gyrations of the tumultuous final month of the regular season, it is Girardi who comes out looking like a genius.

It was he who ultimately decided to drop A.J. Burnett from his rotation and fill his spot with a 24-year-old kid with all of 12 postseason innings on his résumé, and none as a starting pitcher.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJoe Girardi has earned the right to smile -- for a few moments before he begins preparing for the ALCS.

It was he who chose to split his DH role into the two-headed monster of Marcus Thames and Lance Berkman, even while knowing that one of those heads belonged to an everyday player who hated being relegated to a part-time role.

It was he who chose to shelve Chamberlain, the erstwhile bullpen phenom, and give his eighth-inning role to Kerry Wood, a retread who had a 6.30 ERA when he came here from Cleveland at the trade deadline.

And it was he who, as September became a sticky mess of shoddy play and growing uncertainty, doggedly stuck to his plan of resting his regulars -- ultimately at the cost of winning the AL East -- in the hopes of having a healthy roster come October.

He was ridiculed for many of these moves, and quite frankly, at times I was one of the ridiculers.

But right is right, fair is fair, and you are what your record says you are. In his fourth season as a manager, Girardi now has one Manager of the Year Award, one World Series ring and, now, a 3-0 record in the 2010 playoffs and the luxury of allowing his team to rest a full five days while waiting for the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays to settle their increasingly nasty argument.

Maybe Girardi's best move of all was not winning the division, because it is now clear the penalty of surrendering home-field advantage was far outweighed by the benefit of playing the Twinkies, the Yankees' annual October snack, rather than having to beat the Rangers' Cliff Lee twice.

Honestly, Girardi had a lot of things that his Twins counterpart, Ron Gardenhire, did not have, such as a fully intact roster. The Twins were without the second-best bat in their lineup, Justin Morneau, a situation akin to removing Robinson Cano or Mark Teixeira from the Yankees, as well as a clubhouse leader such as Derek Jeter, who according to pitching coach Dave Eiland delivered a rousing pregame speech in the Yankees' clubhouse.

"The first 162 games was just practice," Jeter told his teammates. "Well, practice is over now. We were under .500 in September? Well, so what?"

Or words to that effect.

And Girardi's team has a definite killer instinct that Gardenhire's bunch clearly lacks, as evidenced by its blowing leads in the first two games, including a 3-0 lead over CC Sabathia in the series opener.

In Game 3, the Yankees jumped on the Twins the way a tiger jumps on a lamb, running out to a 5-0 lead after four innings. "We didn't look at it like three games to win one," Teixeira said. "We wanted to win this thing tonight, and it started early."

Still, it is obvious that Joey Looseleafs knows what he's doing. There's brilliance in those binders, stardust in that star system he uses to determine the readiness of his relievers and real instinct in that gut he sometimes relies on in defiance of the charts and figures he loves to pore over.

Phil Hughes pitched so well in Game 3, shutting the Twins down for seven innings on just four hits, that if he doesn't assume the same role in the ALCS, it will be both a mystery and a crime.

Girardi's two-headed designated hitter, Berkman and Thames, came up with four hits, two homers and four RBIs in Games 2 and 3. Wood threw a shutdown inning in Game 2, and even if he faltered a bit in Game 3, he surely will be back in the vital role of Bridge to Mariano when the Yankees' quest for 28 resumes Friday.

And thanks to Girardi's careful rotation of off days and DH days for his aging and aching core, it is likely that by the time the ALCS gets under way, Jeter, Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada will be as fresh and rested as it is possible to be after 165 games.

"I think there was a misunderstanding about some of the things that were said, that we weren't going to hurt our guys during the course of the last month," Girardi said. "Believe me, we were trying to win our division. We wanted home-field advantage. And the month of September wasn't necessarily a lot of fun for us. But we persevered, and here we are going to the next round."

While his team celebrated in the clubhouse -- admittedly a more subdued celebration than the raucous scene it staged after merely clinching a playoff spot last week in Toronto -- Girardi showed up in the postgame-interview room bone-dry, hardly smiling, with the look of a man who knew he still had a lot of work to do.

"There's a great feeling of excitement because it was a tough series," he said. "Of course I will [celebrate]. I'm not a huge fan of freezing-cold champagne over my head, but I will celebrate."

Probably by poring over charts and paging through binders and studying the numbers and tendencies of each team he might face later in the week. "Now, I get to sit down and watch [both teams]," he said. "We'll know by Tuesday night at the latest. We've seen one team a whole lot, and we've seen the other team twice in the last two months. So as far as making our preparation tougher, it won't."

No, it will probably be the same as always. Joey Looseleafs manages this team the way he sees fit, and so far, the fit is perfect.

GAME NOTES: Girardi is giving the Yankees a rare two days off. Workouts will resume Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. ... Wood allowed a run for only the third time in his Yankees tenure but for the second time in a week on a double, two singles and a walk. It was the first time he was hit hard. ... Still, when it came time to replace him, Girardi went first to Boone Logan, then to David Robertson and finally to Mariano Rivera despite having a five-run lead in the ninth. Chamberlain never even got up to stretch out. ... Jeter had two line-drive singles, a sign that he is gradually coming out of the doldrums that affected him for most of the regular season. ... Posada's second-inning RBI single gave him 41 postseason ribbies, eclipsing Mickey Mantle for ninth place on the Yankees' all-time list. All of Mantle's, of course, came in the World Series. ... Swisher went 2-for-3, including a long homer in the seventh, his second career postseason homer. ... Girardi predictably refused to answer the question of whether A.J. Burnett will get a start in the ALCS, but when Eiland was asked whether the Yankees would go with a four-man rotation in the best-of-seven series, he said, "You would think so. But when the manager makes his decision, we'll let you know." ... The crowd of 50,840 was the largest in the brief history of Yankee Stadium 3.0.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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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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