Girardi, 'pen write off AL East lead

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- These are definitely not George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees anymore.

Imagine if "The Boss" of his heyday were still around. Just think about the consequences if, in Steinbrenner's adopted hometown, the manager of the Yankees decided that second place was good enough.

The meeting in the Boss' office would be short, probably a three-word get-together: "Joe, you're fired!"

Instead, Yankees manager Joe Girardi -- who opted for prudence over going hard for home-field advantage Monday -- has just put himself under a larger-than-normal microscope from here until November.

In what was the biggest game of the regular season -- a pitching classic between Cy Young contenders CC Sabathia and David Price -- Girardi sat down his most important relievers and turned to mop-up man Chad Gaudin, who did escape the 10th with the bases loaded, and little-used Sergio Mitre, who wasn't as lucky, giving up the game-winning homer to Reid Brignac in the 11th.

The Yankees lost 1-0 in extras to the Tampa Bay Rays. They have relinquished their hold on the best record in baseball. They are a half-game back in the American League East.
They have lost four in a row for the first time all season. They have only won once in the past eight games. And Girardi managed as if home field doesn't matter.

Maybe he will turn out to be right, but the Yankees are 49-25 at home and 38-32 on the road. Perhaps they still will win the division. Or they could win the whole thing as a wild card.

The manager said he turned to Gaudin and Mitre over Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and Javier Vazquez because he wanted to stay away from his regular guys, who he felt were overworked.

Chamberlain, who hadn't thrown since Friday, said he could have pitched, but he understood the decision and was told he was out before the game started. Robertson wasn't in the postgame clubhouse, but he last pitched Saturday, which usually amounts to enough time for him to go again.

Vazquez, after starting Friday, said he was available Sunday so he couldn't see why he wouldn't have been fine to go Monday.

"They have been used a lot lately," Girardi said. "We thought it is something we needed to stay away from."

While Girardi gave little detail in his postgame news conference, pitching coach Dave Eiland succinctly explained the Yankees' philosophy with Robertson and Chamberlain.

"Maybe you have to lose the battle to win the war," Eilland said.

But the war might be won over the next 18 games, six still against the Rays. Home field is no insignificant advantage, especially when you have a one-man team. The Yankees are touring the country right now as Sabathia and 24 roadies.

Sabathia can't do it all, even if he is trying, matching Price by going eight scoreless Monday. If the Yankees could have pushed across a run against the electric Price, Sabathia would have saved Girardi.

But Sabathia already has won Girardi a ring and made him a hot-ticket manager with a big decision about the Cubs' opening upcoming. (Frustrated Yankees fans just yelled in unison at their computer screens: "Go!")

The Yankees are falling apart as they wait for Andy Pettitte, 38 with 2 1/3 innings since the All-Star break, to get through his minor league rehab Tuesday to try to help put things back together.

Meanwhile, right fielder Nick Swisher can barely run, although he did pinch hit Monday. Swisher is going for another MRI on Tuesday to try to figure out what is going on with his bum knee he has been playing on for three weeks.

Left fielder Brett Gardner is relegated to pinch running and defense right now. In the 10th, pinch-running, Gardner inexplicably tried to steal third with two outs. He got picked off and earned a talking-to from the manager.

"It was my fault," Gardner said.

The loss went to Mitre, but he wasn't to blame. He was asked to pitch in the most important game of the regular season so far after sitting on the sideline for more than a week. No one expected him to be lights out, and he wasn't.

It is true the bullpen was taxed in Texas by the extra-inning game Friday and the marathon Saturday. But none of the main guns were used Sunday. They all had at least one day off. Still, Girardi stayed away from Chamberlain, Robertson and even Vazquez. He didn't want to use Mariano Rivera in a non-save situation.

Now, with rookie Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes going the next two nights, Girardi said he is ready to use all his relievers again. Of course, he might not get another chance.

If these were the Boss' Yankees, there would be big headlines and maybe a new manager Tuesday. But long-term prudence is what Girardi believes. His pitching coach stated the philosophy the clearest -- the Yankees are trying to win the war, not just battles.

The problem, is the battle for home field very well could decide the war.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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