CLEVELAND -- New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was down and, it appeared, maybe out of a job. He knew he messed up Game 2 of the American League Division Series and possibly his team’s season. There was nothing left to do, except apologize to everyone and often.
Immediately after that game, he found his direct boss, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, outside the manager’s office in the road clubhouse at Progressive Field, grabbed him and said he was sorry. Cashman told him to keep battling.
When the team returned to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 against the Cleveland Indians, Girardi relayed a similar message to his players, even if it looked bleak. The Yankees faced the task of trying to beat the red-hot Indians three times, which hadn’t been done by anyone since the beginning of August. The Indians had won 35 of their previous 39 games. The Yankees needed to win three in a row, but Girardi told them to focus on winning one.
First, though, Girardi had to give his team a message and cleanse himself a little more.
"I told them, 'I screwed up,'" Girardi said.
Girardi failed to challenge a hit batsman that should have ended the sixth inning in Game 2. He also made poor relief decisions, and the Yankees blew a five-run lead. Anyone watching knew he screwed up, but he needed to tell his team so that it was easier to move on.
Girardi told his players he believed in them, to keep grinding and to have each other’s backs.
At end of the meeting before Game 3, third baseman Todd Frazier, who is beloved throughout baseball for his outgoing personality, stood up and added some encouraging words, finishing with, “Let’s go!” to put a charge into his teammates and his manager.
“I’ll never forget that,” Girardi said.
The Yankees’ storied history added another unforgettable tale with their manager in the middle of it all. They were soaked in bubbly in the Progressive Field road clubhouse after coming back from down two games, culminating in Wednesday's 5-2 Game 5 victory over the Indians that sends them to Houston for the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, which begins Friday night.
The Yankees didn’t remove the Game 2 blemish from Girardi, but they made it so that it was not indelibly smudged over all of his accomplishments, which include a 2009 World Series title. If the Yankees hadn't come all the way back, Girardi’s Game 2 blunders would have lived in baseball infamy, like a Bill Buckner play for managers, a reference point that would be endlessly mentioned.
Although Girardi doesn’t have the personality of someone such as Frazier, the 52-year-old manager does care as much as anyone. He felt sick about letting down his players, his coaches, his owner and the fans. They picked him up. For his part, during the celebration, Hal Steinbrenner would not address Girardi’s situation. The un-Boss-like boss didn’t want to add to the drama, he said.
One of the players with whom George Steinbrenner had his greatest run-ins and some of his greatest accomplishments, Reggie Jackson, sat back in the victorious clubhouse, soaking it all in.
Jackson dubbed Didi Gregorius the “new Mr. October” in a text to friends after witnessing Gregorius hit two homers -- a solo shot in the first and a two-run job in the third -- that eventually chased the probable AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber. Gregorius has replaced Derek Jeter and even one-upped him. Jeter never hit two homers in a playoff game, let alone a Game 5.
“He admitted it,” Gregorius said of Girardi’s brief speech to the team. “It just shows everybody is united. Everybody has accountability. That’s the best thing. If you made a mistake, you admit it.
“All he told us, ‘Hey, let’s play one game at a time right now, and that’s all we can control right now. Whatever happened in the past, happened in the past.’ We as a team have each other’s back.”
Girardi is not beloved by his players. CC Sabathia has never once looked pleased when Girardi has yanked him, as he did in Game 2 when the big lefty was cruising, but there is a level of respect from his players.
For his part, Sabathia continued his mastery of the Indians, retiring the first nine batters he faced Wednesday and 11 of the first 12 to begin Game 5. Including Game 2, Sabathia set down 23 of 25 Indians at one point. The 37-year-old lefty lasted only 4⅓ innings, but that was all Girardi needed so he could hand the ball to David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman to close out the Indians.
The Yankees took Girardi off the hook. He can stop apologizing now.