"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the [post] season of light, it was the [post] season of darkness..." -- Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
In a Media Age where sports figures speak in a scripted platitudes worthy of elected officials, seldom has a manager, in an unguarded moment of candor, unwittingly revealed the flaw in judgment he alone can't recognize. "I don't like to think too far ahead," said the Yankees' manager before Game 5 of the 2009 World Series.
So we've noticed. And, now, as a consequence, the season hangs in the balance.
On the threshold of a twenty-seventh championship, two distinct, discrete choices presented themselves to the Yankee manager for how best to allocate his pitching over the 2009 World Series final three games in order to grasp that elusive fourth win that has confounded the franchise since 2000.
Choice A: Start Burnett, Pettitte, and Sabathia, in Games 5, 6, and 7, respectively, all on three day's rest.
Choice B: Assemble a piecemeal start from Gaudin, Aceves, Bruney, and Robertson in Game 5; while preserving Burnett, fortified by five days' rest, for Game 6 and assigning Sabathia, no better or worse for wear than in Scenario A, Game 7. Clinging, as such, to a trump card in Andy Pettitte, holding him aside, ready to enter at a moment's notice should Girardi need, in either two games, to remove his starter early and to enlist his bullpen.
Logic and Reason argued for Choice B. Neurotic compulsion dictated Choice A.
Let us count the ways:
1) Burnett's statistics and temperament, each, militated against a Game 5 start. First of all, Burnett has not fared well on the road this season, yielding 6 earned runs in 6 innings pitched as recently as the ALCS Game 5 in Anaheim. Compare, for 2009, the 4.59 ERA away with the 3.51 ERA at Yankee Stadium and likewise, the disparity in batters' OPS+ against him-- 92 at home; 108 on the road.
2) Second, starting AJ in Philadelphia also promised to saddle him with a lineup bereft of its fifth hitter, Matsui, the DH, in addition to weakening it with a left-handed centerfielder against his left-handed opponent, Lee; to say nothing of the innate offensive deficit Burnett's preassigned catcher, Molina, represents.
3) Third, through Game 2 of the World Series, Burnett already had pitched 232 innings in 2009, the most of his career. While starting Game 5 on short rest-- which most pitchers complain disrupts their control-- threatened further to exacerbate Burnett's singular Achilles Heel. When command of the "hook," as he calls it, inexplicably eludes Burnett during a start, the erratic righty neither can recover his release point or more importantly, his composure, nor compensate with alternative pitches. His confidence consequently flags and his performance suffers. (By contrast, the four outing that account for Burnett's 2.33 lifetime ERA on three days' rest hardly consist of a representative sampling; three of which he started in a single season, 2008.
4) In a similar vein, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte, through Game 3 of the World Series, has thrown 220 innings this year, the most since 2005. The effect of which clearly showed in his last start through which he labored. Indeed, he confided to teammates afterward, "I had nothing," as the ever discreet Johnny Damon then revealed. Now, Pettitte, a pitcher who depends upon controlling a cutter, curve, and changeup, will have to start on three days' rest for the first time since September 2006 in a Stadium, where, he has acted as Burnett's foil and antithesis, compiling a 4.59 at home and 3.71 away. Worse, as of Tuesday afternoon, Girardi wasn't even certain Pettitte could start so soon after he muddled through his last outing. When asked who would pitch Game 6 in Pettitte's stead should the necessity arise, Girardi actually responded, "Gaudin," without betraying the slightest inkling he appreciated the irony.
5) Why did Gaudin pose such an obvious choice for Game 5, despite not having started since September 28th or having pitched since October 20th? Because at the very worst, a Gaudin could have recorded 2 innings and then yielded the final six to bullpen (assuming, that is, the Phillies wouldn't have batted in the 9th). In retrospect, how much worse could they have fared in Game 5 than Burnett, Robertson, Aceves, Coke, and Hughes actually performed?)
6) Finally, the off-day, that followed Game 5 would have alleviated whatever strain a combined six innnings from Aceves, Bruney, Coke and Robertson had exacted. More importantly, in scenario B, Girardi wouldn't have had to worry about sparing his bullpen's second and third tier anyway. For behind Burnett and Sabathia would have stood Andy Pettitte, on 3 or 4 days rest, poised to save the day by pitching 2-3 innings out of the bullpen-- an insurance policy well worth the investment upon considering that Sabathia may have to pitch for his second consecutive start on short rest and his third time this post-season.
Perhaps, Girardi's decision to return to Burnett on three days' rest after he sparkled in Game 2, was justifiable in a vacuum. But in the post-season, a manager no more can confine decisions to a vacuum than he can isolate its direct, foreseeable, and ominous consequences. Indeed, by declining "to think too far ahead" this post-season, his judgment has ranked between reckless improvidence and presumptuous malfeasance. Two taxed and depleted arms now stand between the Yankees and ignominy. From Lemon to Howser and Showalter to Torre, the stewards of post-season failure have been dismissed for far more venial sins.
No tears of my mine will fall should Girardi meet his predecessor's fate. Never have I witnessed a Yankees manager follow one inexplicable, counter intuitive, capricious, and just plain foolish move after another through the course of the post-season. The truncated rotation he devised for Games 5 through 7 only consummates them. Among other, they include (i) mismanagement of his bullpen-- calling it "over-managing" excusing the grievous risk Girardi's churning incurred by conjuring the trivial, earnest faults of the solicitous "over-protective" parent-- (ii) blind obsession with innately unrepresentative statistical samples and abstract, subjective scouting reports to the exclusion of what the current game and his players' immediate performance would suggest; and (iii) irreconcilably contradictory tactics in parallel situations.
In the last instance, compare, for example, his pinch-running decisions in the 9th innings of both the ALCS's and the World Series' Games 5. In Anaheim, recall, the Yankees trailed 7-6 with 2 outs in the 9th inning and no one on base. Fuentes walked A-Rod and Girardi pinch-ran for the 3rd baseman, despite the above-average speed Alex has shown on the bases all year following hip surgery. The manager, then, inexplicably, pinch-ran for Matsui, after he reached base next. A bizarre move in its own right because had the Yankees tied the game, they'd have entered extra-innings with Freddy Guzman and Brett Gardner as their 4th and 5th hitters and without their closer besides, summoned already in the 8th.
Cut to Philadelphia ten days later. Once again, the Yankees ignite a 9th inning rally. With the team trailing 8-5, Posada doubles, Matsui singles, and together, they've reached first and third with no one out and brought, in Jeter, the potential tying run to the plate. Now, the only outcome capable of depriving Damon and Teixiera the same opportunity should the captain fail is, of course, the lethal double-play. Which as it happens, the shortstop's inside-out swing and ground-ball percentage gives him a propensity to induce, a flaw about which his skipper, we know, is well informed. To Girardi's credit, it inspired the inversion of Jeter and Damon in the batting order to begin the season.
So knowing all of this, does the manager pinch-run for the lumbering Matsui on first base? Matsui, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, can't bat again anyway. Meanwhile, the swifter, more agile, base-stealing threat Ramiro Pena maunders inside the dugout. The self-evident benefits-- minimizing the risk of a double play and perhaps advancing another runner into scoring position-- outweighs the meager cost-- sacrificing the roster's last pinch-hitter. Furthermore, by eliminating the seventh run from the bases and in turn, the tying run from the plate, the double play threatened a comeback at least as much, if not more, as did A-Rod's presence on first base in the ALCS' similar circumstances ten days earlier. However for reasons explicable to Girardi and God alone, the manager left Matsui on base. Jeter hit into a double play, for all intents and purposes, throttling whatever chance remained of an improbable, eleventh-hour rally. Two batters later, it formally perished.
THE CANYON OR THE GUILLOTINE?
Working inside the crucible, subject to relentless pressure and the microscope's sharpened scrutiny can both expose and magnify any man's failings.
Observing Girardi's foibles and follies on display this October has been a persistently terrifying, frequently infuriating, and ultimately pitiable experience.
He paces, wincing and grimacing. Riffling through his meticulously organized binder of receipts, invoices, and sales figures, he can't find the answer he needs. His best laid plans have gone awry, but panic prevents him from re-evaluating. Instead, he scraps the book entirely. He'll try anything, so desperate has he become to reap a profit for the $200 million of human capital expended-- whether overworking employees, eliminating days off, hiring and firing his relief, mortgaging futures and/or disregarding deficits. For very soon, Christmas will arrive, Saks River Avenue will close for the season, and the tense, constipated shopkeeper the Bosses have left to manage will have to account for his losses and an opulent display case that doesn't feature a ring. Is he the overzealous, autocratic Jacobin, DeFarge? Or beneath the mask does there lie a pathetic, misunderstood, doomed but noble Carton?
Come what may the next few games, if the Yankees win their 27th championship and lead a parade down the Canyon of Heroes, rest assured, they will have overcome an obstacle greater than the Red Sox, Twins, Angels, and Phillies. The terror that reigns inside their own dugout.