- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BOSTON -- Opening Night could not signal open season on Joe Girardi. The Yankees' manager needs to be criticized in a different context than the one that nearly choked the professional life out of him in Year 1, when succeeding Joe Torre was a burden too great to bear.
Girardi humanized himself with the players and the media in Year 2. The catcher famous for a World Series triple finally touched them all as Torre's successor, earning the right to upgrade his jersey number from 27 to 28.
So no, Girardi's big-picture value can't be challenged because his team blew a 5-1 lead to Boston and lost another one of those arena-baseball games that have shaped the rivalry, lost 9-7 to a reconfigured team supposedly built to win 3-2 games.
But facts are facts: To honor the pomp and circumstance inside Fenway Park, where everyone from Pedro Martinez to Steven Tyler to Neil Diamond took the stage, Girardi threw out the ceremonial first glitch.
He stayed with CC Sabathia too long, asking him to throw 104 pitches on a night when that sum felt like 15 too many.
"Tonight was definitely all my fault," Sabathia said. "It falls squarely on my shoulders."
The ace was done. He'd thrown 95 pitches in his first time out, and Boston's best hitter, Kevin Youkilis, was at the plate. The same Youkilis who was hitting .294 against Sabathia in 17 at-bats and who was hitting .167 against the reliever warming up in the 'pen, David Robertson, in six at-bats.
Only this wasn't about the numbers, especially with the Robertson sample so small. This was about common sense, and uncommon dollars and cents.
The Yankees are starting the second season of a seven-year, $161 million investment in Sabathia, a deal representing the biggest ever granted a pitcher. At 29, Sabathia is closing fast on his 2,000th inning of regular season and postseason work.
Across the past three seasons, Sabathia has logged 779.1 innings, including the postseason, including all the blood, sweat and tears he spilled for Milwaukee during the grueling stretch run of 2008.
At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Sabathia might come across as an indestructible force, a hulking figure capable of throwing and throwing at an automated pace. But he is no machine. He's all flesh and bone, a man vulnerable to the cruel forces of gravity and time just like the rest of us.
So what exactly was the point of pushing Sabathia in the opener, of feeding him to Youkilis before the predictable two-run triple to right stirred the Yanks' fellow beast of the American League East?
"He wasn't over 100 pitches, and I still felt good about CC," Girardi said. "So he was going to get through [David] Ortiz, and we had that planned out, and he just didn't get through that inning for us."
Girardi stayed with a prepackaged plan that didn't fit the reality of the moment. That plan said Sabathia would pitch to Youkilis, go lefty-lefty on Ortiz and then give way to the bullpen. The plan said Sabathia would be allowed 105 to 110 pitches in all.
Only the game's irregular heartbeat demanded a Plan B, one in the form of a fresh arm. On cue, Sabathia delivered three straight balls to the maddeningly patient Youkilis, followed up with a gimme strike, and then watched and listened as Boston's first baseman sent Nick Swisher scrambling into the corner, scrambling like a man chasing a butterfly with a net.
"Right down the middle of the plate," Sabathia said, "and he put a good swing on it."
Sabathia did get that preplanned out against Ortiz before he was pulled, but it didn't much matter. The game's dynamic had changed for keeps, and even when the Yankees took a 7-5 lead in the seventh, it was hard to imagine them leaving Fenway as a 1-0 team.
"Tonight was my fault," Sabathia said. "It was definitely all on me. ... I felt like I had good stuff, but I just nibbled too much.
"I normally don't do that, especially with a lead. It was one of those days today when I kind of lost focus."
He wasn't alone. The Yanks had Josh Beckett beaten, had everyone in the house believing the new Red Sox philosophy -- beat the Yankees with pitching and Big Ten-style defense, not by tilting the scoreboard -- would end up in an unruly pile of bad Boston ideas, right next to Grady Little's decision to stick with Pedro in Game 7.
Enter Chan Ho Park, that old reliable Fenway quirkiness and -- voila -- it felt a little like October 2004 all over again.
"It's a long season," Girardi said. "It's one game."
He's right, of course. The 2009 Yankees lost their first eight meetings with the Red Sox before finishing the season series at 9-9, and Sabathia was dreadful in his opening start against Baltimore before delivering a career-best 19 victories.
So the final score was all but meaningless. The potential toll on Sabathia's left arm? Not so much.
Girardi has done a better job of managing and protecting pitchers than his iconic predecessor, Torre, who so abused the likes of Scott Proctor and Ron Villone that Brian Cashman and friends were forced to slap the Joba Rules on him.
But Girardi did press his top three starters to the max in 2009's charmed postseason run, when it made plenty more sense than extending Sabathia in Fenway made on opening night.
"I felt good out there," Sabathia said. He was standing across from the losing clubhouse at the time, wearing a large white towel over his right shoulder.
The towel Girardi should've thrown into the ring.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.