Tough bullpen decisions loom for Girardi
Determining bridge to Rivera crucial for Yanks skipper
When faced with the decisions of when he'll open the bullpen door in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series and who will emerge when he does, Joe Girardi won't be making them alone.
He'll have pages of statistical information behind his call, along with input of coaches, scouts and players, and the backdrop of a 103-win regular season and six wins in eight postseason games.
Then, of course, there are millions upon millions of fans and pundits who will be right behind him, too -- looking over his shoulder, watching and managing right along with him. They'll be making their own calls on his call to the relief corps, before and after he makes it.
Pointing to the bullpen is always a hot button, even in the regular season, but especially under the intense magnification of the postseason.
And, without question, especially for the Yankees in October. Especially this October with a return to the World Series within reach. And especially with a manager whose decisions -- not just with the bullpen, mind you -- have been sliced, diced and generally dissected already this postseason.
Some of his bullpen calls have worked out, perhaps despite themselves. Others, not so much. All have been up for discussion.
Some have questioned if he's in over his head, but there can be no question that Joe Girardi is in right up to the bill of his cap with the famous interlocked NY on it. That comes with the cap, for sure, and it comes with the month on the calendar, every single time.
Following Thursday night's gut-wrenching Game 5 loss for the Yankees, when three runs allowed in the bottom of the seventh erased a lead taken in a remarkable (and long) six-run rally in the top half, Girardi's decisions have been the talk of the town, and really the talk of the sport.
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Questions came flying: Why did he stick with starter A.J. Burnett after such a long offensive outburst in the top of the seventh, even if his pitch count was low? After Damaso Marte (Damaso Marte?) got two big outs, why was it Phil Hughes first, then Joba Chamberlain? OK, so Hughes and Chamberlain have struggled -- what about hot hand David Robertson, who has allowed only a hit in two innings in the LCS? After being pulled just in time for Alfred Aceves to give up the winning run in Game 3, how come Robertson didn't get into the mix, or rookie Phil Coke?
Those types of questions, of course, are the kind of second guessing that comes with the territory for any manager. All Girardi has to do is look across the diamond for someone who feels his pain: Remember, Angels skipper Mike Scioscia didn't just have John Lackey questioning him after he pulled his ace starter with a shutout intact in Game 5, and then the Yankees went on to score three runs on the very next pitch and six in the inning for a stunning comeback.
It's safe to say that Girardi's bullpen calls in Game 6 will be the biggest of his career. It's almost as safe to say that he will have to make that first call before it's the ultimate no-brainer of just bringing in the best postseason closer of all time. The bridge to Mariano Rivera, solid during the regular season, has been shaky, but someone or a couple of someones besides Mo likely will to have to step up with some zeroes.
The reasonable expectation is that Pettitte is pretty much six innings waiting to happen, if that. Pettitte, the all-time leader in postseason wins and innings pitched, entered the eighth inning only twice in 14 starts after the All-Star break, and in his five September-October starts to finish the regular season, didn't pitch into the seventh once.
All of which means that if the Yankees manage to take a lead into the latter innings, Girardi may be faced with a similar scenario as he had Thursday, albeit most likely without the stunning six-run rally preceding it.
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So what will it be? Obviously, matchups could come into play, but from what it sounded like Friday, keeping it simple and sticking to the original script is the most likely scenario.
"You trust it, and you go with what got you here," Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said Thursday. "Don't change now. We've won what, 109 games including the postseason? We are not going to change anything."
Although this certainly wasn't the cast for the whole season, that sounds like going Chamberlain to Hughes and then Rivera, which seemed like the script coming into October.
It worked that way in the Division Series clincher against the Twins -- even if not everyone agreed on the timing with that one, and even if it wasn't pretty. Pettitte pitched into the seventh that time, and actually Girardi going out to get him after just 80 pitches raised some eyebrows. Chamberlain finished out the seventh unscathed after putting a runner in scoring position, he was followed by Hughes in the eighth while getting an assist from Nick Punto's baserunning gaffe, and then Mo the Master wrapped it up in the ninth.
No, the high-wire act isn't in the Yankees' ideal script, but the cast could very well be the cast.
Then again, that was Chamberlain who gave up the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 3 after relieving Pettitte in a tie game, so maybe the original script has been in rewrite mode.
A lot is up to Pettitte, of course, and what kind of shape he leaves the game in the hands of the Yankees bullpen. It's all moot, of course, if the Angels go and take control of the game early, knock him out of the game and the comeback of all comebacks doesn't repeat itself for the Yankees.
But if Girardi's within nine outs of the World Series with the lead again, the calls he makes will be critiqued in print and pixels, discussed on the airwaves, tweeted about and generally bandied about like few before it.
Hey, Girardi had to know it'd be like this. It's his job of a lifetime, and it's October baseball. This is part of it.
Now all he has to do is make postseason calls to the bullpen that answer questions, not raise them.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.