Sometimes managers don't get enough credit. Joe Girardi was being second-guessed all day in advance of Game 3 in the ALDS between his New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. How could Girardi even think about keeping Alex Rodriguez third in the batting order? Was he crazy?
If Girardi was crazy for leaving A-Rod near the top of the Yankees lineup, he had a brilliant moment of sanity in the ninth inning when he pulled Rodriguez for low-ball-hitting lefty Raul Ibanez, playing the percentages against the Orioles' right-handed closer Jim Johnson.
The rest, truly, is Yankee history.
The running gag around baseball is how fans in New York actually believe players have to earn the right to be called a True Yankee. Girardi earned that right a long time ago, despite how many times he has been second-guessed as New York's skipper.
Rodriguez should have earned it in 2009 when the Yankees won the World Series—some five years after coming to New York and moving from shortstop to third base to accommodate the Truest (capital T) of all Yankees, Derek Jeter. Still, despite all he has done in pinstripes, some Yankees fans will never give A-Rod that capital True.
After Wednesday night, they really should.
While Ibanez certainly became a True Yankee with two home runs to win the game for New York on Wednesday night, it was Rodriguez—not playing anywhere near his best on the field—who handled the situation like a True Yankee should.
"Maybe 10 years ago, I would have reacted in a different way," Rodriguez told reporters after the game. "I'm at a place in my career where the team is everything."
Rodriguez is at a place in his career that makes decisions like Girardi's nearly impossible for a manager to make.
As logical as the move seemed—and hindsight surely helps after Ibanez hit those two majestic right-field blasts—benching A-Rod could not have been easy for Girardi to do in that moment. He trusted Rodriguez enough to keep him in the heart of the batting order, only to pull the sure-fire Hall of Famer in the ninth inning with the game on the line?
If Girardi was wrong, Ibanez recorded an out and the Yankees went on to lose Game 3, the second-guessers would have another decision to question. In addition to being down two games to one in a short division series, the rift a move like benching A-Rod could create within the clubhouse might have been more than some managers could stand to survive.
Let's be honest, Rodriguez has never exactly come across like a selfless player—until last night, when cameras caught him celebrating as vociferously as anyone in the building.
Rodriguez wasn't sulking in the corner after being pulled; he was on the top step, hung over the railing in anticipation for Ibanez's heroics. Rodriguez was the first person in the dugout to congratulate Ibanez for hitting the game-tying blast in the ninth.
Rodriguez seemed completely genuine and totally selfless in the moment—a True Yankee if he ever was one.
This cannot be easy for Rodriguez. He couldn't have been happy about getting yanked from the game, and he has to be dealing with the fact that he's no longer the best player in the game—maybe one of the three or four most talented baseball players to ever live.
While Girardi made the right call, it had to be hard for him to know how Rodriguez would react in that moment. For all the issues that could have come up by moving Rodriguez down in the batting order, his reaction to being benched with the game on the line could have been much, much worse.
The move had to work for Girardi, and he had a feeling it would (via Mike Bauman, MLB.com):
I just felt I had to do what was in my gut, what my stomach was telling me and what I thought was the best thing to do. As a manager, sometimes you manage different in these types of games than you would necessarily during the course of the season because you have a long time to deal with it. But today, I just felt like this is what my heart is telling me to do, and I'm going to do it.
Girardi's heart and gut were right. Moving Rodriguez down in the batting order would have only served to embarrass the $29-million superstar. Rodriguez knows he is struggling, batting .111 over the first two games—an average that dropped to .083 after an 0-for-3 night with two strikeouts in Game 3.
Second-guessers be damned, it really is hard to know what Girardi should have done before Game 3. Moving Rodriguez down would have created a number of changes in the Yankees lineup, eliminating the left-right balance and moving other batters out of their normal spots in the lineup. Besides, while Rodriguez is struggling at the plate, it's not as if Robinson Cano—the player Yankees fans want to bat third—is knocking the cover off the ball in this series, batting .167 with an OBP of .231. Curtis Granderson is batting just .091 with one hit in 11 at-bats and an OPS of .258.
(Small sample sizes, yes, but it's not as if A-Rod is the only superstar who is struggling in the Yankees lineup.)
Despite removing Rodriguez from playing the field to focus on being the designated hitter, the decision to keep him near the top of the lineup did not work. Girardi knows that, which makes his decision in Game 4 and beyond that much harder to make, and it makes second-guessers that much more eager to question whatever he does.
Whatever happens moving forward, Girardi got himself out of a jam in Game 3 with great in-game managing. The second-guessers had their keyboards and microphones ready to blast both Girardi and Rodriguez for the Yankees' struggles.
The stories were almost written. A-Rod's status as a True Yankee could be questioned once again. Girardi's ability to manage a roster full of aging superstars could be challenged too.
There was so much blame to go around.
In a flash, all that was gone, riding on the back of a rocket Ibanez sent to deep right field to tie the game and change the Yankees narrative forever.
Ibanez saw three pitches on Wednesday night, hitting two home runs with his only two swings of the bat. With Rodriguez cheering on the top step of the dugout, it was Girardi's decision, and Ibanez's subsequent heroics, that secured the much-needed victory…in True Yankee fashion.