For the past two months, as the Yankees stumbled their way through the end of the regular season and then seemingly turned it back on for the playoffs, no one has seem his decisions questioned more than Joe Girardi. At first, his insistence on resting regulars and not pushing the team to unnecessarily win the division came under fire. Now, his ALCS rotation moves went under the microscope. Yet it’s his looming decision — that of his managerial future — that will have the biggest impact on the Yankee future, and it’s the one decision that Girardi will have to make from his heart and not his hand.
By now, with Game 3 of the ALCS set to start at Yankee Stadium later tonight, it’s clear that Girardi’s approach to September was the right one. Despite faltering in Game 2 on Saturday, the Yankees are a well-rested team, and many of the questions surrounding the club’s health were put to bed as the regular season wore down. As Mike explored last night, the Yankees are right where they’d be had they won the division: with home-field advantage and facing Texas in a best-of-five series. The Doubting Thomases aren’t harping on that critique any longer.
Yet, this being New York City and the tabloids being what they are, most of Girardi’s headline-making decisions have their fair share of detractors. Take, for instance, the Yanks’ decision to start Phil Hughes and not Andy Pettitte in Game 2. Even though Hughes’ splits show an extreme preference for road games and Hughes had been dynamite in Arlington, various columnists wondered why Girardi messed with a good thing. It worked in the ALDS. Why shouldn’t it work in the ALCS?
Of course, it’s not that simple; it never is. The Yanks had to line up their rotation with an eye toward the rest of the series, and the club would rather not have Pettitte and Hughes go on three days’ rest. They also want Pettitte ready for a potential Game 7, and they know that Pettitte is better at Yankee Stadium than Hughes. It makes sense. (They didn’t second-guess the decision to keep Hughes in the game long enough to give up seven earned runs, but that’s a point for another column.)
Once the Hughes/Pettitte debate became moot, the next crisis involved A.J. Burnett. Many do not want to see Burnett take the ball in Game 4 and would rather the Yanks turn their pitching duties over to CC Sabathia. The rotation would then feature Phil Hughes on three days’ rest, Andy Pettitte on the same and, if necessary, Sabathia again on short rest. The Yanks, though, recognize that Hughes has shot past his career high in innings pitched and that Andy Pettitte is still just four outings removed from a groin injury that kept him out for two months. Thus, they want their pitchers on full rest, and as Joel Sherman wrote today, “Burnett is starting against Tommy Hunter, not Walter Johnson. How is this for a concept: If you want to be a champion then figure out how to win a Hunter-Burnett matchup at home.”
The final decision that Joe Girardi must make this month or early next will involve his own future, but it of course implicates the Yankees. As Buster Olney wrote over the weekend, the Cubs just won’t give up on Joe Girardi. While other managerial dominoes are falling, the South Siders are waiting to see what Girardi wants to do. They want him badly enough that they’ll let other potential managers land with other teams, and Gordon Wittenmyer in The Sun-Times notes that Girardi has not closed the door on the opening in Chicago.
Joe Girardi hasn’t been a perfect manager for the Yankees, but he’s been very successful. He’s won 287 games and holds a 15-5 postseason record. His choice to let Phil Hughes pitch into the 5th on Saturday shows he’s still learning the difference between postseason and regular season strategies, but his team has won every playoff series it has faced so far. He doesn’t have a comfortable relationship with the New York media, and he’s been second-guessed at literally every turn this year. If he’s sick of that attitude, he might just make the biggest decison of the year, and if he does, the Yanks will be scrambling to find a replacement.