Sunday wasn’t Joe Girardi’s best day as Yankee manager.
Things seemed to be going the Yankees’ way in the early innings of their rubber game against the Angels in Anaheim on Sunday afternoon. Angels starter Scott Kazmir seemed oddly determined to hit Robinson Cano leading off the second, missing him with a fastball up and in then hitting him in the rear with the next pitch. Kazmir’s next pitch was also a fastball, and Jorge Posada sent it into the new trees beyond the center field fence to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Marcus Thames followed with a ringing double, and the Yankees were in business.
Unfortunately, Thames was starting for the red-hot Brett Gardner (11-for-24 in the team’s last seven games) instead of the ice-cold (1-for-15 over the last six games) and lefty-challenged Curtis Granderson. So, it was Granderson who followed Thames in the lineup with a second-inning sacrifice bunt. Thames did score on a subsequent groundout by Derek Jeter, but (say it with me) when you play for one run, that’s all you get, and that’s all the Yankees got, letting Kazmir and the Angels off the hook with a manageable 3-0 deficit.
Bobby Abreu got the Angels on the board in the third when he homered off Yankee starter Javier Vazquez for the tenth time in his career (tying Manny Ramirez against Jamie Moyer for the most homers by an active batter off a given pitcher). Fair enough. Abreu clearly owns Vazquez, and though the pitch Abreu hit was a flat slider, Vazquez did start to get his fastball up to 91 mph in the third inning after starting out in the high 80s in the first two frames. In fact, Vazquez struck out the side in the third around Abreu’s solo shot, and he experienced a similar increase in velocity in the middle innings of his last start, a win over the A’s.
Unfortunately for Vazquez, he was no longer facing the punchless A’s in their forgiving ballpark, and in the fourth inning, things fell apart. After Hideki Matsui flied out. Kendry Morales singled, Juan Rivera was grazed on the forearm by a pitch, Howie Kendrick singled Morales home, and Mike Napoli worked a walk to load the bases. That brought up Brandon Wood, the Angels third baseman who has looked lost thus far this season and struck out swinging at a pitch that nearly hit him the previous inning. This time, Wood jumped on Vazquez’s first pitch, a hanging curveball, and hit a sinking liner to left field were Thames, again not Gardner, was playing. Thames broke late and made an awkward and unsuccessful dive toward what proved to be a two-RBI double that gave the Angels the lead. A Maicer Izturis grounder then scored Napoli to make it 5-3 Halos, and Vazquez’s day was over after 78 pitches in just 3 2/3 innings.
Pulling Vazquez there and then was the best decision Joe Girardi made all day, as Boone Logan and Alfredo Aceves combined to hold the Angels into the seventh, and Robinson Cano got the Yankees within one by extracting further revenge on Kazmir via a solo homer to left in the sixth (Cano’s third home run off Kazmir this season in just five official at-bats).
Then, with one out and none on in the seventh and Aceves having thrown just 15 pitches (13 of them strikes), Girardi brought in Damaso Marte to face Bobby Abreu. Marte walked Abreu on five pitches, but with David Robertson warm in the pen, Girardi stuck with Marte against righty Torii Hunter, whom Marte hit in the back knee with a slider. That put two men on for Hideki Matsui, a left-handed hitter whom, as Girardi should well know, has had considerable success against lefty pitching. Though he had yet to get an out, Marte stayed in the game and got a check-swing fielder’s choice for the second out, a lucky break that wasn’t quite enough to save the Yankees in this game.
Matsui’s tapper set up the key at-bat in the game. With men on first and second, two out, and the Yankees still just one run behind, switch-hitter Kendry Morales stepped into the right-handed batters box. Girardi initially called for Marte to intentionally walk Morales with the intention of bringing Robertson in to pitch to righty Juan Rivera with the bases loaded, but after one intentional ball, Girardi popped out of the dugout, seemingly to have Robertson issue the walk himself. Two steps out of the dugout, the Yankee manager froze, perhaps called back by one of his coaches, climbed back down into the dugout, called off the walk, then sent catcher Francisco Cervelli out to the mound, seemingly to stall for more time.
Marte’s next two pitches were balls anyway, and with the count 3-0, Girardi later admitted he thought of putting up four fingers again, but instead he, bench coach Tony Peña, and pitching coach Dave Eiland simply reminded Marte and catcher Francisco Cervelli that Morales would indeed swing on 3-0, implying that there would be no gimme strike. Nonetheless, Marte grooved a fastball, and Morales, true to the Yankee coaching staff’s warning, swung, connecting for a game-breaking three-run homer.
And that was that. Facing relievers Fernando Rodney and Scot Shields in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, the Yankees managed only a leadoff walk by Mark Teixeira in the eighth that was erased by a Cano double play. The 8-4 loss handed the Yankees their first series loss of the young season and sends them back east with a sister-kissing split on their six-game trip to the west coast.
After the game, Girardi took full blame for his indecision in the seventh, uncharacteristically second-guessing himself for not going with his first instinct (the IBB plus Robertson). However, the amateurishness of that sequence of events overshadowed the other poor decisions he made in this game including starting Thames in the field when Nick Johnson was already on the bench with a stiff back leaving the DH spot open (Posada was the DH after a day off Saturday with Cervelli catching for the second day in a row), playing Granderson over Gardner then calling for a second-inning sac bunt from Granderson, pulling a cruising and efficient Aceves from a one-run game, and sticking with Marte at least two batters too long.
As for Marte, his description of the decisive pitch against Morales, delivered in his broken Dominican rasp, summed up this head-slapper of a loss: “Three ball, no strikes, you know. Waiting for a fastball. I throw the fastball in the middle. He hit.”