Clueless? No, Joe knows and it shows

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Girardi was the easiest of September targets, with his strategy so timid and his body language so tense. He practically wore a "kick me" sign on his back, right above his upgraded number, 28, which represents a title he appeared destined to lose.

By all accounts, the manager of the New York Yankees was a more relaxed and agreeable presence when he won the franchise's 27th championship. But after Girardi summoned his new jersey out of the bullpen, the drive to repeat as World Series winners twisted his face into a unruly mask of fear and angst.

Yes, he looked like a perfect candidate for a Clueless Joe headline. Girardi was going to blow his team's chances of winning it all and, who knows, maybe he was going to blow out of town and find refuge with his hometown Cubs.

Then, there was Girardi on Wednesday night, the Girardi who was done flipping through his Division Series binders and done running down the Minnesota Twins in another Game 1. The bulging veins in his forehead had settled, and the knotted muscles in his neck had relaxed.

Girardi was cutting a relaxed pose in his T-shirt, as he stood outside of his clubhouse defending his end-of-season approach that was validated by the terms of a 6-4 triumph. "Sometimes people look at one game. I have to look over the long haul," the manager said. "If you go into the playoffs and you don't have healthy players, and you lose two relievers because you abused them, what good is that going into the playoffs? You're not going to be the team to beat."

Girardi had been ripped for swearing publicly that the AL East title mattered and managing in a way that betrayed those words, but he looked like the smartest guy in the house after this comeback victory over a Minnesota team that couldn't beat the Yankees in a Division Series if it had all five games at home.

Of course, the Twins have never even pushed the Yanks to a Game 5. They have played three postseason series over the previous seven seasons, and Minnesota went down in four games, four games and three games, respectively.

Girardi is well aware of that. He is also aware that up, down and sideways the Twins organization has no faith in itself when the Yankees are on the other side of the ball.

Minnesota had a 3-0 lead Wednesday, and the vibe at Target Field suggested that Mariano Rivera would ultimately close the night with a four-out save. The Twins were going to find a way to lose. It could be felt in the beautiful new park as clearly as it was felt in the ghastly old Metrodome.

As it happened, Ron Gardenhire made the game's defining mistake in the Yanks' four-run sixth. He kept lefty Jose Mijares in the bullpen and allowed a fading Francisco Liriano to face Curtis Granderson, who crashed a two-out, two-run triple off the outfield wall to give his team the lead.

"That's his ballgame," Gardenhire said of Liriano. "It is our ace. ... Let him have a shot."

Girardi played it dangerously with his own ace in the same inning, pushing CC Sabathia to the 111-pitch max after Sabathia walked in the tying run. But unlike Liriano, Sabathia honored his manager's faith by striking out J.J. Hardy to quell the bases-loaded threat.

Under the category of debatable decisions, Girardi went 2-for-2. With two on and two out in the seventh and big Jim Thome at the plate looking like Paul Bunyan with an ax, Girardi could've turned to Kerry Wood, who struck out Thome three times in four at-bats in the regular season, or he could've stayed with David Robertson, who struck out Thome once in two at-bats.

The manager chose door No. 2, even though Robertson had just walked Delmon Young. Lo and behold, Robertson bounced a 1-2 pitch in there and let Thome take his lumberjack cut in vain.

No, from a Yankees perspective, the win wasn't Roy Halladay pretty. It wasn't even Cliff Lee pretty. But Girardi wasn't asking for a work of art. When Mark Teixeira launched his decisive moon shot, Girardi was seen on TV begging, "Stay fair, ball. Stay fair."

The ball listened. Girardi got four outs from Rivera when he only asked for three, and he survived a brutal call in the ninth from the umpires on what should've been Greg Golson's game-ending catch. It was a call ripped straight from the Phil Cuzzi playbook.

Mo was Mo, and that was that. In victory, Girardi allowed himself a trace of a smile. He was asked if he was indeed as tight as he looked down the stretch of a regular season that would not end.

"Maybe," he said. "But I got tired of answering the question, 'Are you trying to win?' I told people every day that I was trying to win. I wanted to win the division, believe me. I was pushing guys, but we were beat up and our starters weren't giving us innings."

It hardly matters anymore. Whatever Girardi did, or didn't do, worked Wednesday night. The Yankees were healthy enough, loose enough and refreshed enough to wipe out a 3-0 deficit and silence a hopeful crowd.

This time last year, Girardi proved he could push enough of the right human buttons to win the Yankees' 27th championship. In pursuit of No. 28, he got off to a hell of a start.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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