NEW YORK -- There were times in Sunday's rubber game between the Yankees and Mets at Yankee Stadium when it seemed as if Joe Girardi was managing more to prove a point than to win a ballgame.
And no time was the feeling more apparent than in the seventh inning, when, with runners at first and second, no one out and the game tied at 3, Girardi chose to take the bat out of the hands of Curtis Granderson, his team's leading home run hitter, in favor of giving up an out via a sacrifice bunt.
It was almost as if the manager was saying, "Don't you dare hit a home run here. I'll show them!''
What he was trying to show and to whom he was trying to show it was not clear -- and in fact, he may not have been trying to show anyone anything. But it sure looked as if Girardi was determined to prove that he could win just as easily with the Bronx Bloopers as he could with the Bronx Bombers.
It turned out that on this day, Girardi was right, of course. The Yankees used a combination of bloops, bleeders and dribblers to send 13 batters to the plate that inning, scoring eight runs without benefit of a hit that traveled more than, oh, 150 feet in the air.
The final score -- 9-3 Yankees -- indicated the kind of thrashing the Bronx Bombers would lay on an opponent, burying them under a rainstorm of home runs.
But this was not that kind of ballgame. This was a soft killing, accomplished not with a sledgehammer but with a scalpel.
"We've been talking about playing small ball here for the last week or two, and I don't think it could have gotten any smaller,'' Alex Rodriguez said. "I think, to me, that was more luck than good, but I'll take it.''
Rodriguez was the luckiest Yankee of them all, the beneficiary of a seventh inning that deteriorated into a game of managerial chicken when Mets skipper Terry Collins, in open defiance both of A-Rod's career history (22 grand slams, second-most in major league history) and his Yankee track record chose to walk Mark Teixeira in front of him to load the bases.
There would be no grand slam this time -- merely a topped grounder that rolled no more than 60 feet up the third-base line, driving in what proved to be the game-winner. That made A-Rod 6-for-8 with 19 RBIs in at-bats following that particularly dubious choice.
"I really showed him, didn't I?'' A-Rod joked afterward.
Asked what was going through his mind as the ball dribbled off his bat, he deadpanned, "Just run like hell.''
It was that kind of a game -- a laugher without any jaw-dropping moon shots, a blowout with only one blast. And the one home run that was hit, a solo shot by Granderson in the first inning, was largely inconsequential, seemingly destined until the seventh-inning deluge to be the only bright spot in what would have been a more dispiriting loss, both of the game and the series.
Both pregame and postgame, Girardi chose to ridicule and misrepresent that latest criticism of his ballclub, that it has come to rely too heavily on the long ball and too little on the slow and careful accumulation of baserunners, followed by the kind of timely hits upon which big innings are built.
"The way we talk about it, it almost seems to me like a home run's not a hit,'' Girardi said. "A home run is a hit, it's just a hit that goes a little bit further than most.''
But the disingenuousness of the manager, who hit 36 home runs in 15 major league seasons, was balanced by the reality of his third baseman, who has hit 622 of them.
"You're not gonna hit home runs every night, and you're not going to hit home runs against the great pitchers, that's what it comes down to,'' Rodriguez said. "You have to have diversity in the way you score runs. When it counts most, it's gonna be the things we did in that inning that will help us win games.''
That is precisely the point. Plus, it has been awfully strange to watch this manager, who prides himself on his understanding of the sabremetric approach to baseball and who relies heavily on his collection of information-crammed looseleafs, managing games as if he were Earl Weaver, dozing off on the bench waiting for someone to hit a three-run homer.
So it was certainly refreshing to watch the Yankees attempt to bunt not once, but twice in the seventh inning -- first by Francisco Cervelli, who got plunked in the shoulder by Mike Pelfrey in the act of squaring up, and later by Granderson, who dropped one down successfully to move Cervelli and Derek Jeter (who had just driven in the two tying runs with a single) to second and third.
Cano's was a solid line drive to center, but Gardner's was a looper inside the left-field line and Dickerson's was a pop fly that found a no-man's-land in the Mets outfield. The cumulative effect was greater than what the Yankees had accomplished with four home runs on Saturday night.
"When you put the ball in play with runners on,'' Girardi said, "sometimes good things are gonna happen like that.''
Which, of course, was precisely what the people Girardi perceives as his critics were getting at all along. Home runs are a wonderful thing -- fun to watch and often devastating in their impact, the baseball equivalent of instant gratification.
But, speaking of Rodriguez' dribbler that ultimately won the game, even Girardi seemed to grasp that what the ''critics'' were saying -- that the Yankees didn't get enough timely hits that were not home runs -- might actually have had some merit after all.
"It wasn't a grand slam, but it was just as effective, in a sense,'' he said. "I felt like that was the hit we were looking for.''
And for a change, he didn't have to look up into the sky to find it.
NOTES: Ivan Nova didn't have his best stuff but still worked into the seventh inning, holding the Mets to three runs on 11 hits, his season high. ... A-Rod had four hits -- two of them infield hits, and a third off Jose Reyes' glove to raise his average to .284. ... Jeter had two singles and two RBIs, and his seventh-inning hit was his first with the bases loaded this season (he had been 0-for-3). Jeter is now just 25 hits from the 3,000 plateau. ... Most encouraging stat of the day for the Yankees: 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position. ... Cervelli was originally charged with an error when his throw went into center field on Jason Pridie's second-inning steal, but the error was later charged to Jeter, who failed to get his glove down in time for what appeared to be a pretty good throw. ... Granderson's home run, his 16th, moved him within two of AL leader Jose Bautista, who comes in with the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game series beginning Monday night. Bartolo Colon (2-2, 3.16) faces right-hander Carlos Villanueva (1-0, 1.48) in the series opener, first pitch at 7:05 p.m.