ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Only Joe Girardi knows for sure if he really, truly wanted the Yankees to win Monday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, a game of absolutely no importance to his team but crucial to the playoff hopes of the Rays.
But he certainly managed as if he needed this game; Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner played all nine innings, and Russell Martin would have, too, if home plate umpire Paul Schreiber hadn't left his sense of humor in the umpires' dressing room before taking the field.
Girardi didn't scrimp on using his bullpen, either -- five pitchers followed Hector Noesi, his emergency starter, who couldn't get out of the third inning.
Still, the Yankees came up short, losing 5-2 to the Rays, meaning that everyone at Tropicana Field -- all 18,772 of them, less than half its capacity -- went home ecstatic as the Boston Red Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles, throwing the AL wild-card race into a dead heat with two games to go.
"Hey, we're playing to win," Girardi said. "I got Bartolo [Colon] going tomorrow and I got a loaded bullpen. But my responsibility is to this club."
Girardi said this was as relaxed a postgame demeanor as he has ever shown following a Yankees loss. Some of that, no doubt, comes from the fact that his team has accomplished all of its goals -- they won the AL East last week and locked up home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs on Sunday -- and some of it may have had to do with the news on the scoreboard coming from Baltimore.
Now, it's a coin flip whether the Yankees will have to worry anymore about the Red Sox, to whom the Yankees lost 12 of 18 games this season, reanimating themselves to knock off the Yankees in the playoffs.
With two games left, there's just as good a chance that the Rays, who the Yankees have beaten 9 of 16 times, could be waiting to meet them in the ALCS, provided the Yankees get that far.
And no matter how bad the Red Sox may look right now, their lineup always looms dangerous, and pitchers as talented as Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are always capable of throwing the kind of game James Shields threw at the Yankees on Monday night.
Girardi, of course, will never let on which team he would rather his Yankees play -- "All teams are dangerous in the playoffs, yada, yada, yada," is his standard reply -- but a careful parsing of his statements as we draw closer to the start of postseason baseball gives a pretty good idea of which Yankees team he is likely to send out against them.
As of now, Girardi still will not reveal whether he plans to go with a three-man or four-man rotation for the first round of the playoffs. He refuses to say if he will carry 11 pitchers or 12. He won't commit to a backup catcher, nor will he say whether he has room on his roster for both Jesus Montero, an all-hit, no-catch catcher, or Austin Romine, a defensive specialist behind the plate whose style of play closely resembles a former major league catcher named Joe Girardi.
All we know for sure is that CC Sabathia will start Game 1, regardless of opponent, on Friday at Yankee Stadium.
Everything else is conjecture.
"We'll have a meeting on all that [Tuesday]," Girardi said. "And we'll probably have some more information for you then."
And maybe he has already told us what he intends to do.
Before Monday night's game, Girardi said that matchups would determine the pitchers he takes into the ALDS, and that career numbers against the Yankees' first-round opponent -- it will be either the Detroit Tigers or Texas Rangers -- and recent performance would be the determining factors.
Garcia's career numbers against the Tigers are 18-8 with a 3.88 ERA, while Burnett is 4-2 with a 6.33 ERA.
Against the Rangers, the advantage is less clear-cut -- Burnett is 4-3, 3.66; Garcia 8-5, 4.10 -- but Garcia faced the Rangers once this season and threw six innings of two-hit shutout ball. Burnett did not face them at all. And in 2010, as a member of the Chicago White Sox, Garcia faced Texas twice and went 1-0 with a 3.46 ERA.
Burnett pitched well against Texas in 2010, throwing seven shutout innings against them at Yankee Stadium, but that was back in April 2010, a couple of months before Burnett went into the tailspin he has yet to fully pull out of.
Plus, Girardi has said on more than one occasion that he likes the contrast of the deceptive, soft-tossing Garcia in the middle of his fastball-heavy rotation.
Yes, it's guesswork -- the manager forces you to work that way -- but it's somewhat educated guesswork.
And in no case is it likely to be Colon, who has been fading fast down the stretch. And in any event, he hasn't performed well against either team over the past three seasons. His lifetime record against the Rangers is 8-9 with a 5.25 ERA, but he has faced them just twice since 2009, with a 10.00 ERA. He has been slightly better against the Tigers, but this season he allowed them seven earned runs and three home runs in 11 innings pitched.
And if you're looking for clues as to who will be the backup catcher -- Girardi said Francisco Cervelli is still experiencing concussion symptoms and is unlikely to make it back for the postseason -- you have to figure that the manager's choice to send Romine out behind the plate after Martin got tossed Monday is a pretty good indicator. Romine caught all 14 innings of the Yankees' 7-4 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday night; the five-hour, 11-minute affair was the second game of a doubleheader.
Other than that, the only real decision to be made is whether to bring along Raul Valdes or Aaron Laffey as a second left-handed arm in the bullpen to go with Boone Logan. Valdes' night against the Rays -- two innings pitched, two hits, one long home run allowed and one inherited runner allowed to score -- did nothing to help his cause.
"As I've said all along, I'm not taking my foot off the gas here," Girardi said. "But at the same time, we have evaluations to do and decisions to make. My job is to get this club ready to play and healthy for Friday night."
No guesswork was necessary to understand that a game that would not be played for another four days was a lot more important to the manager than one that had been lost just moments earlier.