Joe Girardi sank season in fifth inning

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The end of the New York Yankees' season came 171 games after it started.

It came in the sixth game of the American League Championship Series, officially 2 hours, 57 minutes after the first pitch was thrown, and it came on an 83-mph curveball from Neftali Feliz to Alex Rodriguez that, following three straight fastballs that brushed against triple digits on the radar gun, seemed almost unfair.

But in truth, the end of this game, and this season, really came four innings and about an hour earlier, when Joe Girardi strode out to the mound, took the baseball from Phil Hughes and handed it to David Robertson.

To that point, Hughes hadn't pitched well and Girardi had managed scared. Now he was about to manage stupid, too.

He had already walked Josh Hamilton twice to get to Vladimir Guerrero, and the second time it had backfired on him when Guerrero smoked a hanging curveball over Curtis Granderson's head to drive in two runs and drive Hughes from the game.

And now, with the Yankees down 3-1 and with four innings of baseball left to play, Girardi flipped through the pages of his binders and the corridors of his mind, finally coming to rest on Robertson.

It wasn't five hours earlier when Girardi entertained the Yankees beat writers in his office and, quite clearly and concisely, spelled out the conditions under which he would call on CC Sabathia to come out of the bullpen and save the Yankees' season.

"I'll use him as I need him," Girardi had said. "I think you try to give him enough time to warm up, and then you might bring him in to start an inning, but we don't have to. If we don't have that option, we could bring him into the middle of an inning. It could be for one batter. It could be to bridge a gap. It could be a lot of different things. Anything.

"We'll do whatever it takes."

In other words, whenever a situation called for the absolute best arm Girardi had available to him in order to save a game and a season, Girardi would go to CC.

But when that time came -- in the fifth inning with two outs, two on and the Yankees facing a very surmountable two-run deficit -- Girardi did not go to the best available arm.

Nor did he go to the second-best available arm, that of Mariano Rivera. Nor the third, the one belonging to Kerry Wood.

He went to Robertson. And Nelson Cruz went yard three pitches later, belting Robertson's 1-2 fastball over the center-field fence.

That was the game, the series and the season for the Yankees. The only thing left was the formality of the final 12 outs. Colby Lewis, who a year ago was laboring to an 11-9 record for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese League, got nine of them -- four on strikeouts -- to make sushi of the Yankees' hopes for a second straight world championship.

Speaking of carp, there was plenty to carp about in terms of the decisions coming out of the Yankees' dugout in this series. In Game 3, trailing by just two runs after eight innings versus Cliff Lee, Girardi chose not to use Rivera to keep it close in the top of the ninth inning.

Instead he went to Boone Logan and Robertson, who combined to allow six runs and put that game out of reach.

That night, Girardi's explanation was that he was saving Rivera for possible multiple-inning appearances later in the series. Those appearances never materialized. Instead, he used Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 6, with the Yankees trailing 6-1, their ship long sailed to sea.

Then in Game 4, having gotten away with five serviceable innings from A.J. Burnett, Girardi sent him out again for the sixth, in which he got pummeled for a game-busting three-run homer by Bengie Molina following an intentional walk to David Murphy.

And now, at the key point of his team's season, he turned again to Robertson, who came into the game with an ALCS ERA of 19.29, and left with an ALCS ERA of 20.25.

You could not make a worse choice if you were trying to. In fact, the truly bad choice had been made two batters earlier, when Hamilton came up in the fifth.

Girardi had gotten away with walking him in the third in front of Guerrero, one of the game's most undisciplined, yet dangerous hitters. That time, Vlad popped out softly to right.

This time, with Hughes faltering and the game and season hanging in the balance, if Girardi did not trust his starter to pitch to Hamilton why not have Sabathia come in and do it? True, Hamilton had hit a three-run homer off Sabathia in the very first inning of the very first game of this series to set a tone that never wavered, but still.

If you can't trust your left-handed ace, your 21-game winner, your $161 million man, to come in and retire a left-handed hitter in a key situation, then why do you have him in the bullpen in the first place?

After the game, Girardi offered a different explanation for his non-existent use of Sabathia: "You have to remember, CC was coming off a 112-pitch game," he said, mentioning something that did not seem a concern before the game. "If there was a situation where we were going to use him against a left-hander, we were going to use him against the left-handers at the bottom of the order."

Of course, those are the kinds of situations that call for Boone Logan, not CC Sabathia. But that is what the manager chose to do, and it cost him dearly.

That was not the only reason the Yankees lost, of course. Facing Lewis for the second time in five days -- he held them to two runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 2 -- the Yankees' high-powered offense made him look like Nolan Ryan the second time around.

The final offensive numbers were not pretty -- Derek Jeter hit .231 for the series, A-Rod .190, Brett Gardner .176 and Nick Swisher a pathetic .091 -- and their bullpen, so reliable for most of the season, collapsed when it was needed most.

Only Robinson Cano (.348, four home runs) and Curtis Granderson (.294) hit anywhere near their capabilities, and both went hitless in the final game.

But the real goat horns were reserved for the manager, and they were a perfect fit.

Girardi, who is without a contract, is a good and dedicated manager who deserves a chance to return. After all, a year ago, he won a World Series with essentially this same team.

But this year he helped lose an ALCS. In the end, the manager who lived by his binders all season died by them, too.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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