Commentary

Girardi has decision to make for Game 4

CC Sabathia on short rest or A.J. Burnett? Yankees manager has a tough call

Updated: October 17, 2010, 9:02 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The binder looms large on Joe Girardi's desk and in his consciousness, thick as a Manhattan phonebook and every bit as comprehensive.

All the answers a manager could want are in there. Hitting tendencies, pitching tendencies, splits, game logs, advanced statistical analyses.

All the answers but one. Who pitches Game 4 for the New York Yankees?

The question seemed to have evaporated along with the five-run lead the Texas Rangers blew in Game 1 Friday night, but it was back again like a cold sore Saturday.

This time, the Rangers' bullpen did for Colby Lewis what it couldn't do for C.J. Wilson, made five runs stand up, and Texas tied the ALCS at one game apiece as the teams head to Yankee Stadium for the next three beginning Monday night.

But this one was more than just a loss, it was both a warning and a reminder. Had it not been for a horrendous half-inning of non-relief Friday, the Yankees would be halfway to being swept by the Rangers, with Cliff Lee looming as the Game 3 starter for Texas, and A.J. Burnett looming as the Game 4 starter for the Yankees.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes' flop in Game 2 has created a conundrum for Joe Girardi.

Right now, it is tough to determine which is more frightening.

Usually, visiting teams are more than satisfied to come away from the first two games of a seven-game series with a split, because the home-field advantage shifts to them.

But because of Lee not being available to pitch until Game 3, instead of becoming a best-of-five with three of those games being played in New York, this ALCS has become a best-of-five with the best pitcher on either team starting two of those games.

And that pitcher is not a Yankee.

From the beginning, the Yankees have assumed two wins from their ace, CC Sabathia, the same way the Rangers have assumed two from theirs, Lee.

Friday night, the Yankees got their win in spite of Sabathia, who was chased after just four innings, having allowed five runs.

Monday night, the Rangers have every right to assume they will get a win behind Lee, who has stymied the Yankees in four of his last five appearances against them, including two this season, and is 6-0 in the postseason with a 1.44 ERA.

And assuming they are right -- a not outlandish assumption -- that would leave the Yankees in a 2-1 hole and counting on Burnett to get them even.

Or do they?

That's for Joe Girardi to think about and "evaluate" -- a favorite word of his -- on the flight back from Dallas tonight. But the answer to that conundrum is not in any looseleaf anywhere in the world, not even the black-clad paperweight sitting on his office desk.

Instead, it is going to have come out of Girardi's head and Girardi's gut, one of which must be spinning right now, the other churning.

Part of that has to do with Saturday's game, in which Phil Hughes allowed the Rangers to regain the confidence that was seemingly destroyed in the Yankees' come-from-behind victory Friday night.

By his admission, Hughes' stuff was flat and hittable. By the estimation of his catcher, Jorge Posada, Hughes again lacked a put-away pitch. And the Yankees' hitters were baffled and tamed by Lewis, a journeyman pitcher most of them had never seen.

Robinson Cano scored the Yankees' first run on Lance Berkman's RBI single, and scored their last run on a monster home run in the sixth inning, but Derek Jeter had a terrible day at the plate, striking out three times, and Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher went a combined 2-for-12. The Yankees overall were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

They even botched a first-inning double steal, leading to the Rangers' first run of the game, when Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus combined on the basepaths to dupe the Yankees.

It was that kind of a game.

But Sunday presents another kind of game, a mind game, one that will have to be played in the minds of Girardi, pitching coach Dave Eiland and GM Brian Cashman.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: For Sabathia to be on his regular between-starts routine, he would throw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium during Sunday's off-day workout.

Pitchers, even the best of them, are notorious creatures of habit, and Sabathia was quite specific about his requirements for pitching on short rest when asked about the possibility Thursday.

"If they tell me that, I just go for it," Sabathia had said. "The only thing is he would have to tell me before I throw a bullpen, because if I have to pitch on three days [rest], I normally don't throw a bullpen and just do two flat grounds and be ready to go."

After the Yankees lost Game 2, 7-2, to the Rangers, Sabathia modified that statement to say if necessary he could skip Sunday's bullpen and still pitch his normally-scheduled start in Game 5 on Wednesday -- so long as he threw the bullpen session Monday instead.

But that doesn't do any good, because by the time he does that -- normally in the afternoon before a game -- the Yankees will not yet know if they have beaten Cliff Lee in Game 3 and can afford to send Burnett out there for Game 4 knowing the worst that can happen is the series comes back tied again.

No, this decision must be made Sunday, when Girardi knows nothing more than he knew at the end of Game 2.

"Right now, we are on rotation," Girardi said in the postgame press conference. "I haven't discussed that with anyone. I mean, we are on rotation."

And he means, "right now." Between now and Sunday evening -- the Yankees have a 4 p.m. workout at the Stadium -- a lot of things can change ... or remain the same.

Pressed further on the matter Saturday night, Girardi begged off, claiming the question was a "hypothetical," to him as dirty a word as "loss."

"Let me get on the airplane first," he said, laughing, "And we'll meet tomorrow."

Meaning, he hasn't ruled it out. Or ruled it in.

On his way out of the clubhouse, Burnett said, emphatically, "I'm pitching Game 4." But he emphatically believed he would start a game in the ALDS, too, and then was left out of the rotation.

The bottom line is, right now nobody, not even Girardi's looseleaf, knows who is going to pitch Game 4 against the Rangers, and nobody, not even Girardi, has the luxury of seeing the outcome of Game 3 before deciding.

It is a tough call and not one anyone else would want to make. Sabathia had a Cy Young-caliber regular season -- 21-7, 3.18 -- but his recent form has not been good. He was shelled in his second-to-last regular-season start against Tampa Bay, pitched well in his finale against the Blue Jays, and then got beat up in both his postseason starts although the Yankees rallied to win both games.

No one knows, or at least no one will say, whether Sabathia's heavy regular-season workload -- 237 2/3 innings, nearly 3,600 pitches -- is taking its toll, or if the disruption of his normal routine has taken him out of his rhythm.

Before his first playoff start against the Twins, Sabathia had one extra day of rest; before the Game 1 start against the Rangers, he had been idle for nine days.

Either way, it does not bode especially well for a good start just three days after laboring for four innings in which he threw 93 pitches. "The toughest thing for me," Sabathia said, "is making sure my mechanics stay good."

And almost any way you go will be a disruption of his routine.

Then again, the alternative may be worse. Burnett suffered through a season that began as maddeningly inconsistent and ended as mortifyingly ineffective. Even in a simulated game at Yankee Stadium last week designed to give him some work and build his shaky confidence, Burnett hit two of his own teammates.

So these are Girardi's choices: Go with Burnett. Skip him and go with Sabathia on short rest. Or hedge his bets, skip Sabathia's bullpen and gamble that the disruption of his routine will not mess him up for his next start, whenever it happens to be.

"I just came off the field five minutes ago," Girardi said. "I'm only worried about Game 3. I don't want to get too far ahead."

That was before he boarded the long flight back to New York, where, alone with his binders and his thoughts, Joe Girardi would have to wrestle with the decision that could determine the remainder of his season.

Game notes: Andrus' steal of home was the first postseason steal of home since the 2002 World Series, by the Angels' Brad Fullmer. ... The 10 hits allowed by Hughes matched his season high (6/29 vs. Sea in 5 2/3 IP). ... The Yankees have fallen behind in four of their five postseason games and rallied to win three of them. ... Cano's home run was estimated at 435 feet. Through five games, his postseason average is .429 (9-for-21 with 2 HRs and 4 RBIs). ... Joba Chamberlain allowed an inherited runner to score in the fifth on a single by Mitch Moreland, but David Robertson, Boone Logan and Sergio Mitre combined for three innings of scoreless, one-hit ball. ... Jeter had a single that traveled about eight feet off his bat in the third to run his postseason hitting streak to 11 games.

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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