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Greg Bird's growing pains contribute to Yankees' loss

BOSTON -- There are a lot of reasons the New York Yankees lost 4-3 to the Boston Red Sox on Monday. It was a most inopportune defeat on a rare night when the Toronto Blue Jays also lost.

There were the four bases-loaded situations -- two with none out -- that yielded just three runs, and there were the three hits with runners in scoring position that failed to get a runner home from second. There was the great throw from Jackie Bradley Jr. that cut down a runner at the plate and the terrific reflex play by Junichi Tazawa that turned into an inning-ending double play with the fastest Yankee at the plate and the second-fastest on first base.

In the dramatic final act of a nearly four-hour game, there was the bases-loaded fly out by Didi Gregorius that most assuredly would have been a grand slam in Yankee Stadium and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, 24 of the 30 major-league ballparks.

Credit a little bit of bad luck, a little bit of untimely hitting and a little bit of Fenway Park for this loss on a night when the Yankees could have sliced a game off the 1 1/2-game lead atop the AL East enjoyed by the Blue Jays. Also credit -- or blame -- the inexperience of a 22-year-old first baseman asked to do the job of a seasoned veteran on his way to a comeback season that would have had him in the conversation for AL MVP.

Greg Bird is not Mark Teixeira, of course, nor is he expected to be.

But there were four instances Monday when the rookie was thrust into a central role that could have changed the outcome of the game. In each of those four instances, he came up short. Perhaps Teixeira would have, as well. But after watching Teixeira field his position as well as any first baseman in the league this season -- while putting up offensive numbers that rival the best hitting first basemen in the AL -- you have to think that if he'd been healthy enough to play, this one might have ended differently.

It probably is not Bird's fault that he got thrown out at home plate on Jacoby Ellsbury's lineout in the fourth inning. Third base coach Joe Espada elected to send him, a decision that had manager Joe Girardi's blessing. But by Bird's own admission, he broke for home as the ball left Ellsbury's bat, and it was hit so hard that by the time Bird was able to regroup and tag up at third, his average speed was no match for the cannon of Jackie Bradley Jr., who hit catcher Ryan Hanigan on the fly and made the inning-ending double play look easy.

Would a more experienced baserunner, even one as lumbering as Teixeira, have held his position at third until he saw the ball hit the ground? Perhaps.

Then, in the fifth inning, the Yankees loaded the bases with two out on a double by Carlos Beltran and a pair of walks from Boston starter Eduardo Rodriguez, which brought Bird to the plate in a position to do some damage. He even got into a favorable count (3-1) and hung tough, fouling off the next three pitches. But he couldn't catch Rodriguez's 94 mph fastball, and he struck out swinging to end the inning.

Then came the seventh inning and the play that decided the game: runners at first and third with one out, the Red Sox leading 3-2 and the heavy-legged Pablo Sandoval at the plate. Panda grounded the ball to Bird, who had a golden opportunity to turn an inning-ending double play. But in his haste to make the play, Bird bobbled the ball and had to settle for one out at first while the Red Sox' fourth and winning run crossed the plate.

Bird had one more chance for redemption in the ninth inning, when he came up with the bases loaded, one out and the Yankees down 4-3. But after new Red Sox closer Jean Machi got ahead of him 1-2, with three straight changeups, Bird seemed to freeze on a 91 mph fastball on the inside corner. Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza, whose strike zone was a mystery for both teams, punched him out, which set the stage for Gregorius' exciting but ultimately futile final at-bat.

Joe Girardi absolved Bird of blame in all four instances, but Bird took full responsibility, especially on the double-play ball that wasn't.

"With Pablo running, I felt like it was hard not to get a double play turned, so I tried to set that up and, on the transfer, just dropped it," he said. "I've got to be better there."

Girardi pointed out that it was a routine bobble, a mechanical mistake any first baseman -- even one as good as Teixeira -- will make from time to time.

"It's a quick decision on his part: Does he go home, or does he go to second?" Girardi said. "We didn't get the double play, and that's the run that ends up costing us, but we had a lot of chances. I don't look at it as Greg Bird cost us the game.”

But as the games dwindle and days are crossed off the calendar, these are the kind of plays that have to be made all the time. The one time you don't, the play might well cost you a game. Down the stretch, this is where the absence of Teixeira might continue to be felt -- on routine and not-so-routine plays on which a pair of soft hands such as Teixeira's save infielders from throwing errors and pitchers from having to get extra outs.

Bird made a beauty on a grounder to first Sunday in Atlanta, a play that easily goes unnoticed in a 20-6 victory. He made less than a beauty Monday, one that stands out in stark relief in a 4-3 loss that could easily have been an important win. But this is what is going to happen when you are forced, as the Yankees are, to thrust rookies into the pressure-cooker of a pennant race. Until Teixeira comes back, Bird is going to have to continue to play first on a nightly basis, but it makes you wonder how much we will see of September call-ups Rob Refsnyder at second base or Jose Pirela at third over the final 32 games, as each and every game could mean the difference among winning the division, taking a wild-card spot and going home.

"We missed an opportunity tonight," Girardi said. "But it's really going to come down to how we play too. We had a lot of opportunities tonight, but tonight we didn't get the big hit.”

Or make the big play.

NOTES: Gregorius had four hits before his final at-bat, including an RBI single in the fourth, which gives him 11 hits in his past 17 at-bats. Since July 23, Gregorious is hitting .349 with 24 RBI in his past 37 games. ... Stephen Drew had a pinch-hit single to lead off the ninth, which gives him five hits in his past five at-bats. His average is up to a season-high .203.