CLEVELAND – Joe Girardi is free to plead his case, but nothing he says will change the minds of Yankees’ fans who are calling for his head today. The manager made a series of tactical blunders in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, leading to a crushing 9-8, 13-inning loss to the Indians. It almost certainly spells the end for the Bombers in this postseason.
Girardi, who made so many right moves this year, including his brilliant maneuvering of the bullpen in the wild-card shootout, had an awful night against Cleveland. He didn't challenge whether Lonnie Chisenhall had been clipped by Chad Green’s fastball in the sixth inning, setting the stage for Francisco Lindor’s grand slam moments later.
The blast brought the Indians back to life in a game where they’d trailed by five runs, proving why they were the American League’s No. 1 offense. With a 2-0 lead in the series, the Tribe is in commanding position to finish off the Bombers on Sunday in the Bronx. The Yankees must now inflict a three-game losing streak on an Indians team that’s won 35 of their last 39.
That’s why the sixth-inning sequence with Chisenhall was so impactful – with an 0-2 count it changed everything. A TV replay subsequently revealed that what home plate umpire Dan Iassogna saw as a hit-by-pitch was actually a foul tip off the knob of the bat that re-directed into Gary Sanchez's glove. It would’ve been strike three. It would’ve ended the inning with the Yankees still ahead by five. Lindor would’ve never gotten to the batter’s box.
So where was Girardi as Sanchez was screaming “Foul (ball)!” to both Iassogna and to the Yankees’ dugout? The manager ignored his catcher, he overlooked the fact that Chisenhall never reacted as if he’d been hit in the hand – he never moved, never reacted. Instead, Girardi claimed he didn't have enough information from his replay personnel to justify a challenge.
“There was nothing that told us (Chisenhall) was not hit by the pitch,” Girardi said. “By the time we got the super slo-mo (replay) we are beyond a minute. It was way too late. They tell us we have 30 seconds.”
Not only was this an uncharacteristically weak response from Girardi, it was simply unacceptable. He could’ve and should’ve challenged the play, even with the uncertainty among his staff. The Yankees had nothing to lose. There was no reason not to take a shot. It was late enough in the game for Girardi to use one of his challenges. So what on earth was he doing by saving it?
Instead, Girardi rambled on about not wanting to break Green’s momentum with a lengthy interruption. He said, “being the catcher that I am, I think about the rhythm for the pitcher and not taking him out of his rhythm.”
Girardi must’ve known his words sounded like gibberish. In all likelihood he was covering for his replay staff who were too slow to react. Still, the responsibility was Girardi’s. Nothing should’ve stopped him from challenging Iassogna. There was no excusing such passivity. When the Yankees are eliminated, it’ll be a debt Girardi will never be able to repay to a fan base that’s doesn't like him, anyway.
And to think: Girardi was the hero of the wild card game, making every right move in getting 26 outs from his bullpen to defeat the Twins. This time, though, Girardi was wrong at every turn, including his decision to lift CC Sabathia after just 77 pitches – and after the big lefty had retired 12 of his last 13 batters. Sitting on a five-run lead, no less.
But the Yankees couldn’t slow the Indians comeback, even without Edwin Encarnacion, who sprained his ankle in the first inning and had to be helped off the field, and even after Cleveland recovered from Corey Kluber’s disastrous outing.
Kluber was knocked out in just 2.2 innings, and when Greg Bird added a two-run HR off Mike Clevenger in the fifth, giving the Yankees an 8-3 lead, Girardi had to be thinking: What could go wrong?
But he couldn’t help himself with Sabathia, marching to the mound after the Indians had put a runner in first with one out. Never mind that Cleveland had fallen under the veteran’s spell: Sabathia didn't allow a hit after the second inning, permitting only one ball to reach the outfield.
But Girardi loves Green’s explosive fastball and this time he paid for it. Green, who was one of the heroes of the wild-card game, wasn't able to generate the same swings and misses against the Indians as he did against the Twins. In replacing Sabathia he got Austin Jackson to fly out to right, before getting into an extended at-bat with Chisenhall.
Even with the count at 0-2, Green was unable to finish off Chisenhall, who fouled of the next four pitches. And then came the decisive clipping on the hand – or the knob of the bat.
“I thought I heard something at first, but I wasn’t sure what it was,” he said, before adding, “at the time I wasn’t sure I’d hit him.”
Either way, Green appeared rattled. Instead of that inning-ending strikeout, the bases were loaded and he fell behind 1-0 on Lindor. But instead of relying on his best weapon, the explosive 98-mph fastball, Green opted for a backdoor slider, “that caught too much of the plate,” he said quietly. “I just yanked it. I didn't execute it very well.”
Green paused and said, “I feel like I should take the blame (for the loss). I should’ve done a better job of getting out of that inning.”
Lindor's blast over the right field wall ignited the crowd at Progressive Field and catalyzed the Indians. Two innings later Jay Bruce destroyed a 3-1 fastball that David Robertson left over the plate. Although the Yankees didn't know, and it would take another five innings to play out, the Bombers were done.
Yan Gomes’ missile-like single inside third base in the 13th inning off Dellin Betances sealed it, scoring Jackson with the winning run. The Yankees tried to sound brave about not caving in Game 3 on Sunday – “we’ve won three in a row before,” is what Chase Headley said - but the words sounded empty.
The quiet shuffling in the clubhouse told you to what degree this loss had taken the fight out of the Bombers. Girardi would know; he’s been a big reason why the Yankees prospered this summer. But not this time. Girardi blinked when the Bombers needed him most. And now they’re nine innings away from a long winter.
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