In 1925, Babe Ruth suffered from “The bellyache heard ‘round the world”, which, before last night, was the most infamous case of digestive rumbling in Yankee history. However, the Babe’s disagreeable tummy must not take a backseat to Joe Girardi’s “gut feeling”, which inspired the Yankee skipper to pinch hit for one of the best players and most prolific homerun hitters in the history of the game with his team trailing by only one run. Although Alex Rodriguez’ at bats had been hard to stomach, the gravity of the decision must have caused Girardi some indigestion, but ultimately, his intestinal fortitude was rewarded when Raul Ibanez came through with not one, but two dramatic homers.
When looked at in a vacuum, the decision to hit Ibanez for Rodriguez might seem academic. After all, Arod had been struggling and was due to face Jim Johnson, a tough right handed pitcher who had already struck him out twice in the series. Meanwhile, on the bench was Ibanez, a left handed slugger who made a habit of authoring clutch hits during the regular season. Throw in the short porch in right field, Ibanez’ ability to lift Johnson’s power sinker, as well as the presence of all left handed hitters batting around Arod, and the choice becomes even clearer. All things considered, sending Ibanez up to the plate was really a no-brainer. And yet, it could end up being the most difficult decision Girardi will ever make.
As manager of a team with several aging superstars, Girardi has been placed in an inevitable and unenviable position of having to shepherd future Hall of Fames through the waning years of their careers. However, last night’s decision was about more than just that. Even though Rodriguez has struggled mightily in the ALDS, he is still a very productive player. In fact, during the regular season, the only Yankee who posted clearly superior offensive numbers was Robinson Cano. What’s more, Rodriguez hasn’t been the only player to struggle in the series. One hit in 12 at bats might seem like an extreme slump, but the Orioles and Yankees each have four hitters who have only managed two or fewer hits in 10 or more at bats. Yes, Rodriguez has not produced in the series, but by no means is he alone.
What made Girardi’s decision to pinch hit for Arod so difficult is the narrative that surrounds the three-time MVP. Despite having one of the greatest postseasons of all-time in 2009, without which the Yankees probably don’t win their 28th World Series, Rodriguez continues to be dogged by the notion that he can’t produce in a big spot. For that reason, and probably several others better deciphered by a psychiatrist, a much too large percentage of Yankee fans almost seems eager to boo the slugger. Unfortunately, Rodriguez has spent most of his time in pinstripes as an easy scapegoat, so by lifting him in last night’s game, Girardi ran the risk of feeding into the irrational frenzy.
As Girardi pondered his options, he had to wonder whether he was being influenced by the overwhelming public over-reaction to Arod’s struggles. The idea that the great slugger was just one at bat away from breaking out also had to give him pause. Finally, gnawing at his now famous gut had to have been concern for how Rodriguez would react. After all, the chances of Ibanez tying the game were slim, so if lifting him from the game caused Arod to check out mentally (like many believe he did after Joe Torre demoted him to eighth in the 2006 ALDS), the Yankees’ ability to recover from a 2-1 deficit would have been made all the more difficult.
As it turned out, Ibanez made Girardi look like a genius, and Arod’s postgame reaction (see video below) demonstrated the amount of respect he has garnered from his players. Maybe, if Girardi did not have such a firm hold on his clubhouse, hitting for Rodriguez would have been impossible. Even so, it seemed like a decision he could never make. And, who knows, had the Yankees lost the game, some might be arguing it was a decision he shouldn’t make. Thanks to Ibanez’ heroics, Girardi doesn’t have to face that line of questioning. Instead, he just has to figure out the right combination to get his offense jump started.
Fans have the luxury of jumping to emotional conclusions, but Girardi is too level headed to get caught up in the extraordinary events that transpired last night. Although his gut check saved the day in game three, Girardi’s steady hand is what’s needed to guide the team throughout the rest of the postseason. And, like or not, that begins by continuing to write Arod’s name in the middle of the lineup (perhaps not third, but somewhere in the vicinity). Will it take some courage to make that decision? Sure, but after last night, Girardi certainly doesn’t seem as if he has a short supply.