David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - The pitchout didn't get Rajai Davis. It was very close, but now the tying run stood at second base. So David Robertson thought to himself, OK, it's up to me to finish off Brett Lawrie, get the ball to Mariano Rivera for the ninth inning and save the season.
Joe Girardi had a different idea.
He was going to Mariano Rivera. Immediately. Robertson is considered one of the game's premier set-up men, and as trustworthy as any player Girardi has on his roster. This was not Phil Hughes (more on him later), Shawn Kelley or Joba Chamberlain.
But Robertson also is not Rivera, and to Girardi, it didn't matter that he was in the middle of an at-bat, with the count 1-and-0 to Davis. The manager had Rivera warming as soon as Davis singled with two outs in the eighth inning, and he wasn't going down with him waiting in the bullpen.
Sorry, Robby. "Mo's been in this situation so many times," Girardi said afterward. "You talk about experience, experience, experience -- and that's what he's down there for."
It was the fourth time in exactly two weeks that Girardi had called on Rivera for the eighth inning, and he doesn't sound like that's going to stop until Rivera's retirement becomes official. But last night, seeing Girardi bolt toward the mound -- after a pitchout, no less -- caught Robertson a bit by surprise.
"I thought I was staying in to get Lawrie," Roberston said. "But it is what it is. You got Mo back there. He's pretty good."
No argument here. And Girardi is getting more antsy by the minute. After the Yankees lost their fourth straight Tuesday night, dropping the series opener to the Blue Jays, Girardi said they were getting "darn close" to must-win territory.
As soon as Hughes served up a two-run homer to Colby Rasmus in the fourth inning last night, the Yankees had driven right past "darn close" and crossed the town line into Panic-ville. Girardi was up the steps before Rasmus' ball even landed in the upper deck, signaling for the lefthander David Huff, otherwise known as his safety net for the volatile Hughes.
Poor Phil. He brought this on himself, of course. But even for him, knowing that he can't afford to give up a single run must be unnerving. Girardi already took away his rotation spot earlier this month by starting Huff in his place. But after the manager restored it, Hughes now resides in a sort of baseball purgatory, waiting for the inevitable mound visit.
It's shutout or bust for Hughes, and as much as Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild brief him on the game plan, it still startles him with how fast they pull the plug. No pitch count, no innings limit. If Girardi senses things are about to go wrong, he's coming for the baseball.
"It's a little strange," Hughes said. "But this time of year, you can't really complain too much. Just try to get wins at any cost. This is the situation I'm in and I'm trying to embrace it as much as I can. See what happens."
Huff didn't seem like much relief, teeing up Ryan Goins' first career home run one out later. But he kept the Yankees in the game long enough to put together the comeback that allowed for Rivera to protect a 4-3 lead in the eighth.
As we all know by now, the Yankees don't have the luxury of getting cute with a lead of any kind, and Girardi wasn't going to gamble with this one by proving how much faith he has in Robertson. He assumed his set-up man would understand.
"Absolutely," Robertson said. "I think it's the mind-set we all have right now -- we'll do whatever it takes to win. We're trying to scratch our way into the playoffs."
For Girardi, it didn't take much explaining. "I don't think there's any arguing who the greatest relief pitcher of all time is," Girardi said, "and that's what I went with."