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Observations From Cooperstown: Girardi, The Hawk, and Melky

Posted By Bruce Markusen On October 22, 2010 @ 10:18 am In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Observations From Cooperstown,Yankees | Comments Disabled

I find myself torn on the issue of Joe Girardi returning to manage the Yankees in 2011. If the Yankees can complete a comeback over the next two days and make it back to the World Series, then I suppose that the Yankees will make every effort to re-sign him. Two Series appearances in two years, along with a general approval rating from his players, should be enough for Girardi to begin his fourth season as Yankee manager. Then again, for all of his intelligence and attention to preparation, Girardi continues to show an alarming lack of feel for in-game managing, a trait that could cost the Yankees dearly during the string of short series that make up the postseason.

Girardi’s dubious strategies took center stage in Game Four of the ALCS, when the Yankees coughed up a 3-2 lead on their way to a disastrous 10-3 loss. Mark Teixeira’s strained hamstring forced Girardi into making an unwanted move–replacing his star first baseman with a pinch-runner during a budding rally. Girardi had several choices. He could have summoned his fastest runner, Greg Golson, who could have taken over in right field, with Nick Swisher moving to first base. Or he could have tapped Austin Kearns, a decent runner and capable right fielder. Instead, Girardi called on Marcus Thames, a relatively slow runner (who hasn’t stolen a base since 2007) and a brutal defender in the outfield.

So what was Girardi thinking? He probably wanted to maintain a good hitter in Teixeira’s spot in the batting order, hence the decision to summon Thames. Unfortunately, that left Thames, the team’s worst fielding outfielder, having to play right field in the sixth inning of a one-run game. Lo and behold, Vlad Guerrero led off the sixth with a single to right on a ball that conceivably could have been caught by the swifter Golson or the more agile Kearns.

The better move would have been to play Golson or Kearns in right field through the next turn in the batting order. At that point, Girardi could have used Thames, or even Jorge Posada, as a pinch-hitter. Or he could have used Thames to pinch-hit for Lance Berkman when the Rangers brought in lefty Derek Holland. Bottom line, Girardi needed to think quickly in pinch-running for the injured Teixeira, and he chose the worst available option. It was as if Girardi was worried about running out of players, even with three backup outfielders at his disposal.

Then came the critical top of the sixth inning, when Girardi made two more mistakes. He instructed A.J. Burnett to intentionally walk the left-handed David Murphy, so as to bring up the right-handed Bengie Molina. Considering Molina’s hot bat and extensive postseason experience, compared to a relative novice like Murphy, this move appeared questionable. It became downright detestable moments later when Molina launched a three-run home run that landed inside of the left-field foul pole. And even if one defends the decision to go righty-righty, it seemed that Girardi extended Burnett’s stay too long. Joba Chamberlain was warmed and prepped in the bullpen, ready to relieve Burnett, who had shown signs of faltering the last two innings. Rather than be satisfied with five and two-thirds innings of respectable pitching from Burnett, Girardi pushed the enigmatic right-hander into another failed start.

So did Girardi’s managerial shenanigans cost the Yankees the game? Well, to borrow from a cliché, they didn’t help. The Yankees might have lost anyway given the failures of the bullpen over the final three innings, but sounder managing might have preserved a lead going to the bottom of the sixth. And then perhaps Girardi would have turned the lead over to Kerry Wood instead of handing off innings to David Robertson and Sergio Mitre.

Barring blowouts in Games Six and Seven, the Yankees cannot afford another night of managerial missteps. They simply have no margin for error…

***

As I watched the Rangers thoroughly outplay the Yankees over the first four games of the ALCS, I wondered how a team so talented and experienced could fall so flat during the most critical stretch of the season. Then I happened to read an article that listed the members of the Rangers’ coaching staff. At that point, I realized that the Yankees may have fallen victim to the “Curse of Andy Hawkins.”

The erstwhile Yankee right-hander now serves as the Rangers’ bullpen coach, after having filled in briefly as the team’s pitching coach prior to Mike Maddux. Yes, this is the same Andy Hawkins whom the Yankees signed as a free agent prior to the 1989 season. Like Dave LaPoint and Pascual Perez and so many other mediocrities of the era, Hawkins turned millions of dollars of overpayment into pitching underachievement.

Hawkins pitched so badly at the start of the 1990 season that the Yankees decided to give him his unconditional release. They changed their minds when Mike Witt, another disappointing right-hander, went down with an injury. Short of starting pitchers, the Yankees kept Hawkins on the 25-man roster.

That decision only led to the agony of July 1, a day that epitomized the nightmarish frustration of 1990. On a sunny and windy afternoon at old Comiskey Park, Hawkins kept the White Sox hitless through the first seven innings, but the offense provided no support. With the game scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, the defense also collapsed on Hawkins. After recording two quick outs, Hawkins induced a ground ball from a young Sammy Sosa. Mike Blowers, the latest failed flavor of the day at third base, botched the ball, allowing Sosa to reach on a clear-cut error.

Yankee misadventures had only begun. Hawkins then walked the next two batters, loading the bases. That brought up the dangerous Robin Ventura. Hawkins appeared to escape the predicament, as Ventura lofted a high fly ball to medium depth in left field. But there were too problems. Blustery winds made their way through Comiskey as if it were Candlestick Park. And Jim “The King” Leyritz, ostensibly a catcher-third baseman, was playing out of position in left field. As Leyritz fought the wind, he watched the ball clang off his glove onto the outfield grass, the second error of the inning. In the meantime, all three runners scored to break the scoreless tie.

Still, the Yankees had not done quite enough to undermine Hawkins. Ivan Calderon lifted a fly ball to right field, where the usually capable Jesse Barfield resided. No problem, right? Barfield handled the wind just fine, but lost the ball in the sun, letting it drop. It was yet another error. Ventura came around to score, giving the White Sox their fourth run without the benefit of a hit.

Somehow managing to avoid a nervous breakdown on the mound, Hawkins wriggled out of the inning–without any hits. When the Yankees failed to score in the top of the ninth, Hawkins had to settle for the irony of having pitched a no-hitter while losing the game.

Even that little bit of satisfaction was taken away in 1991, when Major League Baseball’s statistical committee decided that pitchers could only receive credit for no-hitters if they had pitched a minimum of nine innings and notched a complete game. Since Hawkins had tallied only eight innings in the loss to the White Sox, his no-hitter no longer counted.

Hawkins lasted four games into the 1991 season before the Yankees gave him his release. Over three seasons, his Yankee ERAs read 4.80, 5.37, and 9.95. I haven’t thought about him much since then–until seeing his name on the Rangers’ coaching roster this week.

It’s nothing against Andy, but I hope Hawkins has to answer that bullpen phone often over the next two days…

***

The Yankees may have a chance to undo some of the horror of last winter’s Javier Vazquez trade. Released by the Braves earlier this week, Melky Cabrera is now free to sign with any team that will have him. Personally, I’d like to see a reunion between Cabrera and the Yankees.

Cabrera endured an awful season with the Braves. He hit only four home runs, batted a mere .255 and slugged .354. Clearly overweight, he could stand to lose 15 to 20 pounds. The Braves were so unhappy with his play and his conditioning that they didn’t bother to wait for any wintertime trade offers.

If Cabrera can lose some weight, he would be a good fit in New York–and in his old uniform. Still only 26, Melky could fill the Austin Kearns role in 2011, playing as a fourth outfielder and defensive caddy to Nick Swisher. He would also give the Yankees their strongest outfield arm, with the possible exception of Greg Golson.

Cabrera was overexposed with the Braves, where he played too much and had to bat too high in a weaker lineup. With the Yankees, he would play more sparingly, and bat somewhere near the bottom of the order–where he should. Yes, I am ready for Melky Cabrera, Chapter Two.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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