NEW YORK -- In the space of one half-inning Thursday night, the Yankees took a winnable game and turned it into an unwinnable game. They took a close game and turned it into a blowout. They took a series they still had a chance to win and turned it into a series loss.
They went into the top of the ninth inning against the Phillies trailing 3-1, and came out of it trailing 7-1. And if not for an accident of fate, a sharp grounder that should have been a two-run single that ticked off the foot of baserunner Raul Ibanez and became an unconventional but welcome out, it would have been 9-1, and maybe worse.
And all because of a knee-jerk move by a manager who prides himself on not doing anything simply out of reflex.
Going into that top of the ninth, Joe Girardi had a full complement of pitchers available in his bullpen, but only one he could have counted on to keep the game right where it was, within striking distance of even the suddenly anemic Yankees offense.
That pitcher, of course, is Mariano Rivera.
But Joe Girardi chose not to use Rivera last night. He went to Joba Chamberlain instead, a pitcher who has become as reliable as the flip of a coin, and when that flamed out, he went to Damaso Marte, and when he failed, too, Girardi went to Chan Ho Park. And still, he needed help from the fickle finger of the baseball fates to get him out of an inning that rapidly turned into a nightmare.
No one could have reasonably predicted, of course, that Chamberlain would face three batters, allow two hits and a walk without retiring any, and wind up surrendering three crucial runs.
But it was a pretty good bet that had Girardi sent Mo out to pitch the top of the ninth, he would have delivered a 3-1 game to his offense for the bottom of the ninth.
I mean, why do you even have a Mariano Rivera on your staff if you are not going to use him to give your team its best chance to win ballgames?
And that was what was at stake here, a ballgame and a series and the momentum of a team heading into a weekend against its intracity rival that right now, is playing a heck of a lot better than it is.
Maybe the absence of Dave Eiland, Girardi's trusted pitching coach, clouded his thinking, or perhaps the formula -- Joba-to-Mo -- has become so ingrained in his thinking that he never considered the possibility of switching it up for one night.
But this night called out for emergency measures to try to pull out a dramatic win.
This night called out for Mo.
Instead, Girardi called for Joba.
"Well, I'm not gonna bring him [Rivera] in in that situation when we're down by two runs," Girardi said. "I'm just not gonna do it."
The natural follow-up, of course, is why not?
"I been used that way before," Rivera said, "But not that often. If we're down by one, yeah. Down by two? It's a hard, hard call. But it's not unheard of, not at all."
Certainly not, especially when he hadn't worked in four days, and even then, the last time he did work, Girardi sent him out to get the final three outs of a game in which the Yankees were leading the inept Houston Astros by four runs.
In fact, seven times this season Girardi has called on Mo to pitch a ninth inning in a nonsave situation, once in fact when the Yankees were leading by EIGHT runs!
So if it's OK to use your closer in a game that calls for a mop-up man, why isn't it OK to use him in a game that calls for a lockdown reliever?
Because there is no better man to lock down a game than Rivera.
He is a closer, of course, and not just any closer, but quite probably the greatest in history at the fine art of locking down the final three outs of a game. Generally, his job is to come in and finish off a game in which the Yankees are leading after eight innings, or, if on the road, after eight-and-a-half.
But not always. Sometimes, a manager will bring in his closer when his team is trailing after eight, just to keep things close enough to make those last licks mean something.
Joe Torre used to do it once in a while. Girardi may have done it, as well. It isn't done very often, but there are times over the course of a baseball season when it just makes sense to do it.
Thursday night at Yankee Stadium was one of those times.
The Yankees were trailing by two runs, hardly an insurmountable lead for this offense, even when Derek Jeter is struggling (0-for-15 and 3-for-24 on the homestand), Alex Rodriguez is hobbling and Mark Teixeira seems unlikely to ever get any kind of sustained hot streak going this season.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees were sending up A-Rod, with 591 career homers (although just 8 this year), Robinson Cano, the leading hitter in the major leagues, and Nick Swisher. All they needed was a chance to even things up, especially against a Philadelphia bullpen boasting such unimposing arms as those of Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero.
So what does Girardi do but bring in Chamberlain, who promptly sets the place on fire, and follow up with Marte, who walks two batters, the second on a 3-2 pitch that flew nearly to the backstop on the fly, a pitch so bad Girardi went out to the mound with trainer Gene Monahan under the perfectly reasonable assumption that only an injured man could throw such a wayward pitch.
It turned out Marte wasn't hurt, just wild. And by that point, the game was as out of reach as that pitch.
By the time the Yankees came up in the bottom of the ninth, any hope of a stirring win was long gone. Girardi and his bullpen had taken the bats out of his team's hands and whatever hope they had of a come-from-behind victory out of their hearts and their minds.
Maybe the Yankees would have lost the game anyway, maybe Romero would have shut down the 4-5-6 hitters in the Yankees' order the very same way, and instead of a 7-1 loss, they would have suffered only a 3-1 loss.
But the plan in that top of the ninth was to keep the game close, not blow it wide open. It's a good bet Mariano Rivera would have kept his end of that bargain, if only given the chance.
The Yankees' only run of the night came on a sixth-inning RBI single by Cano, who seems slump-proof, his average up to .372. ... Rodriguez, who went 1-for-4, seemed to run the bases as gingerly as he had Wednesday night, although Girardi said he "is getting better," although the manager was still unwilling to commit to a date for his return to third base. ... There was a large number of Phillies fans in the crowd of 47,204, large swaths of red shirts and caps visible in the stands and a noticeable amount of cheers both for Carlos Ruiz's ninth-inning double and for Jeter's eighth-inning strikeout. ... Jeter was asked what he thought of the Mets, who come into Friday's opener of the second Subway Series of 2010 riding a seven-game win streak and are just a half-game back of the NL East-leading Braves. "I don't know how they're playing," he said. "Somebody told me they were playing well but I really don't pay attention to other teams unless we're playing them." Sometimes, it's hard to believe he actually lives in New York City.