Joe Girardi has a very bad day vs. Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Over the course of a baseball season, there are games that are lost in the first inning, games that are lost in the bottom of the ninth and games that are lost at any and all times in between.

The New York Yankees' 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday was one of the few that was lost at the posting of the lineup cards.

Yes, James Shields (four hits, no runs, 11 strikeouts) was outstanding. And for the third time in four post-All-Star Game starts, CC Sabathia was just OK. Lance Berkman, one of the three new Yankees, had the jitters, Austin Kearns was pretty much invisible and Kerry Wood -- fresh off late-night plane flights from Toronto and Cleveland -- was left in for five batters too long. Not even Robinson Cano had any heroics left, having used all of his up on Saturday night.

But from the moment third-base coach Rob Thomson performed his daily ritual -- carrying the lineup sheet from the manager's office to the clubhouse door, where it is tacked up for perusal by the media -- there was a definite feeling that this would not be the Yankees' day.

No Alex Rodriguez? No Brett Gardner? Berkman at first in place of Mark Teixeira? Kearns starting in left?

If it wasn't for the name "Jeter" appearing where it is just about every day, at the top of the list, it would have been difficult to determine at first glance that this was a Yankees lineup card at all.

That was just the beginning of a strange day for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who is always concerned about resting his horses and somehow -- on this day, in this game, against this team at this point in the season -- chose to rest three of them. (Teixeira technically got only a half-day's rest, but still.)

Worse than that, he went and defeated his own purpose by using Rodriguez to bat for Kearns in the seventh, necessitating that he also rouse Gardner from his day of rest because he now needed a left fielder.

"They didn't play a full game, they weren't out there a lot,'' Girardi said after the game -- although before the game, when asked if he would try to avoid using Rodriguez at all, Girardi said, "That would be wonderful.''

In the end, nothing Girardi tried worked out the way he wanted it to. Berkman looked like a butcher at first base, although he did make a terrific play in the fourth inning that saved at least one run and quite possibly two. Teixeira, who does not like to DH, hit like a guy who'd rather be out in the field, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. A-Rod is still stuck at 599 home runs after striking out looking at a fastball. None of the guys he wanted to rest really got much of a rest at all.

And if not for one titanic Cano swing in the ninth inning of Saturday's game, the Yankees might well be heading home Sunday night in second place behind the Rays, rather than clinging to a one-game lead in the division.

Berkman, at least, had an excuse. "I don't think I've played in a meaningful game in like three years,'' he said. Change the timeframe to nine months, back to the 2009 World Series, and you can say the same about the Yankees.

The difference is, even if they hadn't done it yet this season, this team and this manager have played in plenty of meaningful games in the recent past. They know which games to bear down on, and which to ease up on.

With a chance not only to win a series against their nearest division rivals and, more importantly, put some air between themselves and a club they haven't been able to shake all season, Sunday's game certainly seems to have qualified as one you really want to win.

So how Girardi -- a manager who prides himself on the mastery of statistics and tendencies and spray charts and matchups -- could choose to send out the B team against an A opponent is a mystery not even he could fully explain.

"I'm just playing so I don't blow somebody out,'' he practically shouted after the game when asked about his lineup. "I had talked about giving Alex a day off, and I can't play Tex 37 out of 38 days or I'm gonna break him down. People they're gonna question it, but I gotta think about the long haul.''

He also pointed out that this was Aug. 1, not Sept. 15, but the truth is a loss today counts every bit as much as one that occurs six weeks from now. And having come in here believing they were about to have a great weekend, the Yankees left having in fact lost some precious ground.

"I've said all along this is going to go down to the wire,'' Girardi said. "They're a great team with some great young pitchers. We lost because we didn't score any runs. That's all.''

True, Shields' changeup kept the Yankees off-stride all game. At one point, he struck out six straight batters and didn't allow a base hit from the second until the sixth. Meanwhile, Sabathia, once again lacking command of his fastball and unable to put hitters away -- he had only three strikeouts -- surrendered three runs in the first three innings. That was all Shields, no doubt emboldened by the diminished Yankees lineup, would need.

"All he threw were changeups, all game,'' said Nick Swisher, who had two of the Yankees' four hits. "I think the biggest thing about it is, they weren't really for strikes. We were chasing them. The next time we get in a situation like that, we have to make sure we only swing at strikes.''

Overall, it was a disturbing day for the Yankees. Berkman got his first hit, a ringing single in the sixth, but his play in the field reminded you of how good Teixeira is out there. So much for giving Teixeira very many DH days. It is too early, of course, to tell much about Kearns, but Wood showed the inconsistency that has plagued him throughout his injury-riddled career.

Wood hit 95 mph on the gun to his first batter, Evan Longoria, then broke off a beautiful slow curve to set him down looking to end the seventh. His long day should have ended right there, but Girardi -- who before the game had described Wood as "probably a one-inning guy'' -- sent him out for the eighth. Wood quickly unraveled, loading the bases on two walks and a single and forcing the manager to use another arm, Chad Gaudin's, to finish up the inning.

"For a guy who hasn't pitched since July 11, I was pretty pleased,'' Girardi said of Wood. "I wouldn't judge him too much on today because he's pretty rusty.''

The manager presumably is not. Then again, the Yankees, like Berkman, haven't played many meaningful games in quite some time.

With seven more games against the Rays looming in September, there's plenty of time for both of them to remember how.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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