Prior to Wednesday’s game against Tampa Bay, Yankees manager Joe Girardi found himself in a terrifically sweet position. The Yankees had little to play for; they would finish with the American League’s best record regardless of the outcome.
A loss, however, would give the Rays a leg up on the American League wild card. More pertinently, it would provide a possible knockout shot to the Red Sox—and what Yankee wouldn’t enjoy that?
With so much on the line for his opponent, however, Girardi was, under the auspices of baseball’s unwritten rules, obligated to utilize his best players. So the question became, Would it be okay if he didn’t?
The answer: Of course. Winning, or putting your team in a position to win, trumps nearly every facet of the Code. It’s safe to assume that Girardi—a Yankees catcher for four years before taking over as manager in 2008—takes joy in any opportunity to stick it to Boston. On Wednesday, he could do so under cover of getting his own team ready for the postseason. The skipper had a playoff series to prepare for, and resting his players may well be vital to that preparation.
In fact, Girardi did exactly that against the Rays on Sept. 22, resting Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner in a game New York would lose, 15-8.
But with the season on the line for Tampa Bay on Wednesday, Girardi started what’s essentially been his regular lineup, and stuck with it until
rain delayed the game in the seventh.
With New York holding a 7-0 lead, the skipper went to his bench: Eric Chavez replaced Mark Teixeira in the lineup, and took over at third base. Brandon Laird moved from third to first. Chris Dickerson took over for Nick Swisher in right field. Heck, A.J. Burnett—A.J. Burnett!—saw action in the seventh.
That strategy, of course, is covered by its own set of unwritten rules. With the game comfortably in hand, Girardi could have been accused of running up the score had he continued to play aggressively. Such a full utilization of his role players was definitely not that.
As it was, of course, we all realized exactly how far behind us the days in which a 4-0 lead was considered safe actually are. Tampa Bay tied the game with six in the eighth and one in the ninth, and won it—and the wild card—on Evan Longoria’s 12th-inning homer.
Boston fans might bemoan Girardi for his late-game lineup manipulations, but their manager didn’t. “They can do whatever they want,” said Terry Francona in a MassLive.com article published Monday. “They have played themselves into that position; they’ve earned the luxury. I have never had a problem with that.”
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The piece of Code mandating that managers utilize their best lineups when playing contenders late in the season really comes into play when an also-ran rests its regulars against a club with playoff hopes—”to get a look at the kids,” or some such. Few issues will be taken should the occasional prospect be utilized for evaluation purposes, but generally speaking the rule is firm: Play the rookies against Pittsburgh; sit ‘em against St. Louis.
Take 2004, for example. Going into the season’s final series, the Giants and Houston were tied for the wild card lead with 89-70 records. The Astros closed with three home games against Colorado, while the Giants visited Los Angeles.
Suffice it to say that members of the San Francisco clubhouse took note when Rockies manager Clint Hurdle trotted out a series-opening lineup featuring six rookies—Aaron Miles, Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, Jorge Piedra, Brad Hawpe and JD Closser.
The Giants managed to take two of three from the Dodgers, but it wasn’t enough; the Astros swept punchless Colorado.
“All we needed was for Houston to lose one game,” said then-Giants reliever Matt Herges. “We were watching that, yelling, ‘This is a joke.’ We couldn’t stand Clint Hurdle after that.”
“If we’re in that position, it means we stunk all year,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson. “Well, let’s stink a little more if we have to, but we’re going to give them the best shot we’ve got.”
That, however, is not a universal view. For the flip side of the argument, we turn to Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
“Goddammit, if I’m that far out of the pennant race, the players I was playing weren’t worth a shit, anyway,” he said. “You might as well take a chance and look at some new players for next year.”
Which brings us back to Joe Girardi, who doesn’t have to worry about any of that. His players don’t stink, he could have gotten away with virtually anything he wanted in this regard during yesterday’s game and, as a bonus, he helped kill Boston’s season.
Not bad for a day’s work.