NEW YORK -- Maybe the combination of factors was just too tempting: Joe Girardi. National League game. Expanded rosters. Mix thoroughly, and ... it's not what you want. Not if you're a fan of crisp baseball games, and not if you're a proponent of saving bullpen arms that are already overworked.
The New York Yankees beat the New York Mets 5-0 on Saturday, a lead they assumed after 5 1/3 innings. Their starting pitcher, Michael Pineda, was cruising along, having allowed the Mets just two hits, one of them an infield single that caromed off the pitcher's buttocks, and used up just 75 pitches to that point. If anyone had asked you how many more pitchers the Yankees might use to win that game, you might have guessed two, or maybe three at most.
And if anyone had told you that before it was over, you would see both setup man Dellin Betances and closer Andrew Miller, and that the game would still end 5-0, you would have considered the person uninformed, insane, or both.
Well, we know Joe Girardi is not uninformed. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the Yankees manager might be over-informed, if such a thing is possible, his head too full of statistics and tendencies and spray charts and exit velocities to simply sit back and let the game come to him.
Because in a game that the Yankees won rather easily, Girardi used a total of seven pitchers on a day when his starter went into the sixth inning and could have probably lasted considerably further than that. He even used a total of four second basemen, which was a source of postgame amusement to at least one of them -- Brendan Ryan, who came in as part of a double switch when Girardi lifted Pineda for Justin Wilson with one out in the sixth.
"That's got to be a record for second baseman in a nine-inning game, right?" Ryan asked of anyone within earshot within the Yankees' clubhouse.
Nobody's worried about the workload of Yankees second basemen; however, one of them, Stephen Drew, was in the game for a mere three batters in the sixth inning, between Dustin Ackley and Ryan. (Rookie Robert Refsnyder got in for the ninth inning to complete the keystone quartet.)
The real concern is the relief pitchers, namely Betances -- who has thrown more pitches than any other reliever in baseball -- and Miller, who has already appeared in 55 games despite missing a month with a forearm strain and is on track to throw nearly 70 innings, the kind of numbers Mariano Rivera did only three or four times over the course of a full season.
To give the manager the benefit of the doubt, maybe there were just too many toys for him to play with and too many opportunities to play with them for him to leave well enough alone. After all, on any given day now he has a dozen relief arms in his bullpen, and in an NL game there are so many chances to double-switch and so much temptation to play mix and match.
But there is another factor at work here -- Girardi's stubborn refusal to accept the reality of his club's likely fate, which is the dreaded one-game wild-card play-in. He continues to manage as if the AL East is at stake -- technically, it is -- but the hard numbers are very much against his team. The Toronto Blue Jays hold a four-game lead in the division with 15 left to play, and there are only three more head-to-head matchups. The prudent course might be to save the precious arms of Betances, Miller, Justin Wilson and even Chasen Shreve as often as you can, and begin gearing up to win what is likely to be the next truly must-win game of the season, the one against the other wild card team on Oct. 6. (If the season ended today, that game would take place at Yankee Stadium against the Houston Astros).
But here was Girardi, with a five-run lead, using Betances in the eighth inning (he pitched a clean inning, striking out two and throwing 18 pitches), and going to Miller to get the final out in a nonsave situation. Girardi started the ninth inning well, with young James Pazos, who got Daniel Murphy to ground out. Then he decided to go to his bullpen in a reflexive righty-righty matchup, bringing in Chris Martin to face David Wright. That worked, too, as Martin got a strikeout for the second out.
Then, something strange happened: Martin got two soft ground balls, but thanks to the inability of his infield to get an out on either one of them, wound up with two baserunners. The first, by pinch hitter Michael Cuddyer, was in the hole, and Refsnyder couldn't make a throw despite getting a glove on it. The next one, by Wilmer Flores, was a bouncer that Didi Gregorius cut off, but his throw pulled Greg Bird off the bag at first. It was scored an infield hit but probably should have been the game ender.
At that point, Girardi had seen enough. He brought in Miller, who on his third pitch got pinch hitter Travis d'Arnaud to ground into a game-ending forceout.
On the surface, there was no harm done. But for a manager who sometimes seems obsessed by his guidelines for resting players, especially pitchers -- no three days in a row, and no more than three games in four days -- it was a wantonly reckless disregarding of his own rules.
"I think his rules usually [don’t] include September," Miller said. "That’s how I understood them. I know they’re not hard and fast. I don’t know how many games we have left but I’m going to try to pitch in every one of them."
Girardi's reasoning seemed faulty in several instances Saturday. He said he pulled Pineda -- who was visibly upset at being yanked after only 86 pitches -- because of Murphy's previous at-bats against him, though Murphy had grounded out and had an infield single in two previous at-bats. He implied he was looking for a low-leverage situation in which to insert Ivan Nova, his newest bullpen toy, into a game for the first time. It's hard to imagine a lower-leverage situation than a clean eighth inning with the pitcher's spot leading off and a five-run lead.
The bottom line, as the manager likes to say, is that Girardi seemed willing to throw caution to the wind in the interest of nailing down a game that was already won.
"We’ve got to win ballgames. That’s the mindset," said Brian McCann. "You try to give [Betances and Miller] as much rest as possible. Those guys are our horses and they’ve been horses all season long. But we’ve got to win ballgames."
It's hard to believe there was no other way to win this one than by perhaps jeopardizing your chances to win bigger ones down the road.