Commentary

Girardi nearly ruined Nova's night

Manager's late-game moves complicated what should've been an easy win in Cincy

Updated: June 21, 2011, 7:27 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CINCINNATI -- Let's see if we can get this straight: The guy Joe Girardi should have taken out of the game, he left in. The guy he should have left in the game, he took out.

A ninth inning that should have passed without incident turned into a mess, and a game that should have been a cakewalk for the New York Yankees instead almost became a slice of walk-off pie-in-the-face for the other guys.

It's a good thing the Yankees held on to beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-3 at Great American Ball Park on Monday night or the manager of the Yankees would have had some serious explaining to do Tuesday morning.

Ivan Nova
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIvan Nova went eight inning on Monday, the longest outing of his young career.

As it is, all he had to do was answer some nuisance questions about a game that, viewed from afar, will appear to have been little more than a routine Yankees victory over another inferior National League team.

In fact, it was anything but.

Let's start with the good: Ivan Nova. He was very, very, very good. The 24-year-old righty with the reputation of weakening with each flip of the lineup actually got stronger as this one went on, overcoming a rocky first to pitch eight full innings for the first time in his brief career, limiting a good hitting team to one run, four hits and just five baserunners, walking none and striking out seven, many on a super-sharp slider and baffling changeup.

Move on to the bad: Girardi, who like Nova started out weak by allowing Andruw Jones to remain in the game after he literally walked to first base on a double-play grounder to end the third inning. Afterward, Girardi and Jones agreed on a reasonable explanation: The 34-year-old outfielder had rolled his left ankle slightly coming out of the batter's box.

If that was true, it is remarkable that Girardi, a manager so cautious he sends guys with the sniffles for an MRI, allowed him to remain in the game, especially with a healthy and red-hot Brett Gardner sitting on the bench.

And if it wasn't true, then it was even more remarkable that Girardi left Jones in. Because that would mean he simply didn't think it was worth running out the play, even as his battered teammate, Russell Martin, was taking out second baseman Brandon Phillips with a vicious slide that probably would have allowed Jones to beat the relay.

Girardi had shown faith and loyalty to Jones by having him in the starting lineup in the first place; this was his payback.

And on to the ugly: After eight innings, with Nova still in command and having thrown only 105 pitches, the manager decided to go to Luis Ayala, a reliever he had only the day before anointed his "eighth-inning guy" on nights when David Robertson was not available.

And yet, Girardi's faith in Eighth-Inning Guy Ayala lasted all of four pitches, or as long as it took for him to surrender a leadoff single to Phillips.

Then, he went to Boone Logan, the lefty who can't get out lefties, to face Joey Votto, the reigning NL MVP. In what was probably the least damaging result possible, Logan hit Votto in the back with his first pitch.

That was it for him.

Now, Girardi had to go to Mariano Rivera, who was probably dozing off in the bullpen or maybe fishing in the Ohio River just behind the ballpark. Sorry, the Ball Park.

Mo wound up allowing both inherited runners to score, and suddenly, the tying run, in the person of Edgar Renteria, with a career .333 batting average against Rivera, was at the plate. Luckily for all concerned, Mo struck him out to end the game and preserve what should have been a neat and tidy victory.

Afterward, Girardi had smooth explanations for all of his ninth-inning machinations.

There was no way Nova was coming back out for the ninth, he said. Ayala would have remained in the game to face Votto and Jay Bruce, another lefty, if he had retired Phillips. After Phillips singled, he thought it was time to give Logan, who had not pitched in five days, some work. But after one pitch, Girardi decided he'd had enough work. At that point, with the tying run on-deck, it was Mo Time.

Robinson Cano
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Yankees complicated what should have been an easy win in Cincy.

The whole thing was unnecessary and, in a way, unnerving.

And it detracted from a superior effort by Nova, who not long ago was said to be fighting to hold onto his spot in the rotation.

But Monday night, spotted to a 4-0 lead in the first inning by his teammates against starter Travis Wood, Nova seemed to grow as the game progressed.

His finest moment might have come in the first inning, when after allowing singles to the first two batters, Nova crossed up Votto with a 1-0 changeup and got huge double play.

"That was a huge at-bat in the game," Girardi said.

After that, Nova allowed just a single to Paul Janish in the fifth, a single to pinch-hitter Fred Lewis with two out in the eighth, and one other baserunner when Drew Stubbs reached on a wild pitch after striking out on a curveball that dove into the dirt.

"Today I used my changeup a lot because I know they have a lot of power hitters and you don't want to let them hit your fastball," Nova (7-4, 4.13) said. "That's why in the bullpen I was just thinking, throw the ball down, down, keep it down all the time. I bounce them, that's how they miss, you know?"

From the second to the eighth inning, 18 of the 21 outs were either strikeouts or groundouts. And when Girardi told Nova he was through for the night, this was his reaction: "Why are you taking me out? I think I can go one more."

The manager didn't think so, and his team nearly paid the price.

On offense, the Yankees got five hits in the first inning, including an RBI single by Alex Rodriguez and an RBI double by Robinson Cano. They didn't get another run until the eighth, and that was without a hit, when Curtis Granderson walked, stole second, went to third when the throw got by Janish and went into center, and scored on a wild pitch.

In between, they managed just three hits. One of them, a fourth inning single by Eduardo Nunez, was quickly erased when Nunez got himself picked off first base.

In all, it was a game that insured no worse than a .500 road trip and held out the promise of much better with two more games left in Cincinnati.

But it was also the kind of game that reminded you of something that happened to the Yankees a lot last year. On certain nights, even when the machine isn't broke, the manager can't help but try to fix it.

•••

Rodriguez had two hits, an RBI and scored a run. Afterward, Girardi, although continuing to maintain that A-Rod is not injured, described his third baseman as "beat up," a characterization Rodriguez did not deny. "I'm OK, just OK," he said. "Nothing north of that, that's for sure. But we're thin as it is, and I'm good enough to play." Girardi said A-Rod might be given a day off on Wednesday. ... Despite his assurance that Jones' ankle was OK, Girardi replaced him in left-field with Gardner in the seventh inning. ... Cano's double extended his hitting streak to nine games. ... The only downside to Nova's effort were his three at-bats, the first of his major league career and first, he said, since he was 14 years old. He struck out three times, including bunting foul with two strikes, and generally looked like a man trying to kill wasps with a shovel. "The guy was throwing 90, 91, and I was like, 'What the hell, man? Throw 85.' But it was fun." ... Converted outfielder Brian Gordon, who pitched well in his Yankee -- and major league -- debut as a starter last week in the Bronx, gets his second start Tuesday night against RHP Johnny Cueto (4-2, 1.68) Tuesday night. Cueto was supposed to start Monday but was scratched with a stiff neck. First pitch is at 7:10 p.m. ET.

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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