On Wednesday night, Joe Girardi batted David Phelps eighth in the lineup ahead of rookie Austin Romine. The part I have never seen the Yankees do in any World Series game or interleague matchup was the pitcher batting ahead of the catcher.
Of course, it’s not unprecedented, and that drew the ire of some critics. Tony LaRussa made a living on batting the pitcher eighth and many felt Girardi’s move was a desperate one, an attention-seeking option to make the game bigger than the Yankees’ dwindling roster and lineup, shut out the night before in a hitter’s park by an average starter.
Girardi’s reasoning was fairly rationale. He knew he would be pinch-hitting late in the game and he wanted two traditional hitters in front of the number two hitter, the Yankees’ best, Robinson Cano.
So already we have three things we haven’t seen from Girardi’s binder since he joined in 2008 and certainly would have never seen from Joe Torre in the previous 12 years. A rookie starter was pitching to a rookie catcher who was batting in front of the pitcher with the team’s best hitter in the two-hole during an inter-league game.
Welcome to the 2013 Yankees, where innovation is necessary and welcomed. The Yankees don’t have the Angels’ lineup like they have the past few years. They don’t have the health of a team like their counterparts on Wednesday in the Rockies, who have Troy Tulowitzki day-to-day and exactly one player on the DL from the roster. The Yankees have 11.
That’s why it’s very crucial Girardi, like the players on his roster, step out of their comfort zones and embrace the chaos surrounding the season.
They need to fight different ways to win and so far it’s been happening.
Wednesday night New York won a very telling game. It was a win in May they probably overlook with a superior roster and treat as an “L” in the standings to be made up at a later time when they score 10 runs against someone’s starter in other years.
This team cannot afford to operate that way and they know it.
Romine was called up and represents the Yankees’ fourth catching option of the year. The first left to join the Pittsburgh Pirates. The second is injured and the third, inherently a career backup, had the day off.
Until the ninth inning, when he didn’t.
It was Romine behind the dish and he called a great one, guiding Phelps through six innings of two run ball, capped by a nasty strikeout of Carlos Gonzalez to escape a threat and keep the game tied at 2-2.
Phelps, to his credit, didn’t have his best curveball but used offspeed stuff and his fastball location to silence the Rockies minus a two-run home run mistake to Todd Helton.
He didn’t get the win and he didn’t seem to care much.
This team cannot afford to care about individual feats.
Phelps, the sixth starting option (seventh if you count the wishful thinking Michael Pineda never destroyed his arm), was on the mound because Ivan Nova is hurt. But he pitched well enough to give the ball to Preston Claiborne, who had pitched three (and only three) perfect innings in the majors.
Claiborne bridged the gap because Joba Chamberlain is injured.
So now the owners accused of “buying championships” had a starter plugged into the rotation en route from the bullpen in his first full season of starting, pitching to a rookie catcher (who is acting as the backup to a backup) and relieved by a rookie reliever, not considered a top 50 prospect (or the best relief option from his own farm team) in a tie-game on the road, all while fighting to move within one game of first place in the AL East.
And all of that lead to homegrown Dave Robertson, still in his arbitration years, handing it to Mariano Rivera in his final year, who promptly ended the game and the Rockies’ threat in the bottom of the ninth.
That was all made possible by the top half of the inning, where Girardi could be seen pulling string after string of his puppet show.
Vernon Wells, who had already broken out of his slump with two hits including a two-run homer earlier in the game, hit an infield single to begin the frame. Wells is playing full-time because Curtis Granderson is rehabbing.
Lyle Overbay followed with a walk to make it 1st and second with no outs. Overbay is playing because Kevin Youkilis is hurt and Mark Teixeira is rehabbing with Granderson.
Last year New York was criticized by many for waiting around for the three-run homer and as a result they didn’t produce too much ninth inning magic. By playoff time, they didn’t produce too much of anything.
This year, Ichiro Suzuki, he of the near 3,000 hits in the US alone, in a situation to hit a three-run homer, laid down a sacrifice bunt.
Chris Nelson, playing because of the aforementioned Youkilis injury and because Jayson Nix is required full time at shortstop since Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez are both hurt, was pinch-hit for by Travis Hafner, who promptly struck out for the second out.
Curiously, this lead to the eighth spot in the order, in this case, the pitcher’s spot. Girardi replaced Robertson with Brennan Boesch, leaving just Stewart on the bench.
Boesch beat out an infield single to give the Yankees the lead, scoring Wells from third. Two hits, one bunt, two pinch-hitters and one game-deciding run, all by never leaving the infield.
This team needs to be able to produce in any way possible.
All of this meant Stewart replacing Romine in the field (because he was more familiar with Rivera), effectively using all the position players on the roster. Wells, who had not played the infield since high school, was placed at third base, with Ichiro moved from right to left field and Boesch to right field.
Re-read that again. Joe Girardi moved a player to a position he hasn’t played in his professional career and replaced his starting catcher with the only other catcher on the roster specifically to catch a 19 year veteran for three outs.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
And of course it was Wells with the putout to Overbay in the ninth from third base after driving in two runs and scoring the winning one.
It wont’ be long before Granderson and Youkilis returns. Shortly thereafter, we’ll see reinforcements coming in as time goes on. But in April and May it’s been guys like Phelps stepping up in the rotation, Nix, Wells, Boesch and Overbay stepping into big roles and a combination of farm talent (Claiborne, Warren, Robertson, Cervelli and Gardner) and washed-up veterans (Hafner, Stewart, Ichiro) keeping the Yankees afloat during their darkest of times.
This game in particular, orchestrated by its manager, forced into resourcefulness, luck and innovation to try to help a group of castoffs and players who don’t know any better, win a division, is one which will stick out. And this was supposed to be a team lacking depth comparative to actual “contenders”.
And this line of thinking, this attitude and atmosphere, will need to continue all year long, even when the players with the better playing card come back. Girardi needs to take risks, he needs to let Claiborne and Phelps prove themselves, just like he let Cervelli before his injury. He needs to keep Gardner in center field even though Granderson is used to it. He will need to manage better than he’s ever managed before because the roster cannot afford complacency .
Win or lose, it’s feeling a lot different in Yankees’ land, even if the results have been coming back familiar early on.