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Winning AL East title vs. getting first wild card: How should Joe Girardi play it?

Manager Joe Girardi #28 of the New York

Manager Joe Girardi #28 of the New York Yankees looks on before a game against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

One game in the loss column separates the Blue Jays and Yankees going into Friday night's game at Yankee Stadium. So it's a pennant race, right?

Not really. The second-place Yankees still have the cushion of the American League's first wild-card spot. If the Yankees overtake Toronto this weekend, the Blue Jays will have the cushion of the first wild-card spot.

This is the fourth season in which baseball has had two wild cards in each league and a pair of one-game elimination rounds to start the playoffs. It's pretty much taken as gospel that you want to win the division so you can avoid the wild-card playoff game. But should it be?

The Royals and Giants made the World Series as wild cards last season, with San Francisco winning a thrilling seven-game series. In the previous two seasons, three of the four winners of the wild-card game were eliminated in the next round (the Division Series). The 2012 Cardinals made it to the NLCS.

"Everybody wants to be in the playoffs, but nobody wants to play a do-or-die game right away," Yankees closer Andrew Miller said before last night's game was rained out and rescheduled as part of an old-fashioned doubleheader Saturday. "It's not that you frown at the opportunity to play in the wild-card game, but you want to win the division. The way it's set up right now, it's a huge reward for that. That's our goal."

Asked Thursday how hard he plans to push his players to win the division, Joe Girardi said: "I'm going to push them as hard as I can."

But as we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Girardi did exactly the opposite. He didn't use Miller or Dellin Betances in the late innings of tied games against the Orioles. The Yankees lost both when lesser relievers gave up homers for what proved to be the winning runs.

On Wednesday night, in fact, Girardi knew the Blue Jays were down big to the Red Sox in an eventual 10-4 defeat and that a Yankees win could mean a tie in the loss column with the Jays.

But Betances was not on the mound in the eighth despite having had Tuesday off. Adam Warren was, and he gave up the eventual game-losing home run to Steve Pearce -- just as Chasen Shreve had allowed the eventual game-losing home run by Chris Davis in the ninth a night earlier.

So is Girardi pushing to win the division or saving his guys for the long haul?

"I think you push them as hard as you can without hurting them is what you do," he said. "That's what you have to weigh. The thing we have to deal with is the 30 games in 31 days . . . We're not necessarily running a lot of 25-year-old position players out there."

If the Yankees go pedal-to-the-metal and win the division, the reward will be three days off before their first ALDS game.

But the flip side is bad, real bad. If they go full-out but don't finish first, and if Girardi overuses Betances and Miller, the Yankees will have one day off before a wild-card game with the two relievers not being well-rested. He also needs to keep an eye on Masahiro Tanaka, who is pitching with an actual elbow injury and needs extra rest almost as much as Matt Harvey but hasn't made a federal case out of it.

At the moment, the second wild card belongs to the Rangers (who still could pass the Astros). The Twins also are in the hunt. The Angels are distant pursuers.

Is the prospect of playing a win-or-go-home game at Yankee Stadium against the Rangers, Astros, Twins or Angels really so scary that you have to treat this weekend and the remaining games as if every one is the last?

Girardi's words say yes. So far, his actions have said no. For this team, with an aging roster and questionable pitching staff, that actually might be the right call.

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