Over a 162-game season, one that stretches from April through September, the idea of must-win games in late July sounds extreme. During any other year, under most circumstances, that type of urgency could be dismissed as a media concoction, talk-radio hyperbole.
But not right now, and not for these Yankees, whose 12-inning loss Saturday to the Giants, by the excruciating score of 2-1, was something they simply could not afford to happen. With principal owner Hal Steinbrenner in the house, the desperation was palpable, as stifling as the sauna-like climate, and Joe Girardi managed as if the season hung in the balance.
“It hurts,” a visibly-drained Girardi said afterward.
That’s because the Yankees’ margin for error has evaporated. The ability to absorb a bad week, or a lousy homestand, no longer exists. A week ago, Girardi labeled the Sunday finale against the Red Sox as “important” a game as any of his teams had faced at this stage in a season.
The Yankees beat Boston that night, then took three of four from the Orioles, and edged the Giants Friday night, 3-2. They should have won again Saturday, even with Johnny Cueto moved up for the matinee, and their abysmal 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. The Giants, with two more errors, and Angel Pagan’s brain cramp, standing on third, watching a wild pitch sail to the backstop, tried to serve this one up. But the Yankees, despite the manager going for broke with his bullpen, refused to take it.
So now, the Yankees have another crucial game Sunday, one Girardi obviously believes could be the tipping point between keeping this roster together or stripping it for parts to trade. He’s not alone. That feeling is shared inside the clubhouse, where an invisible clock is ticking.
“Every game is huge,” said Brian McCann, who popped up meekly with the bases full and one out in the 10th inning. “We put ourselves here. We know where we’re at.”
As the Yankees repeatedly failed at the plate, Girardi felt compelled to take risks he normally wouldn’t with the most valuable arms in his bullpen. The manager initially bypassed Dellin Betances, going straight from Ivan Nova to Andrew Miller for the eighth. Then it was two more innings from Aroldis Chapman — who threw 36 pitches after his 17 Friday night — and finally, regrettably, back to Betances for the 11th.
Girardi said before Saturday’s game that he wanted to stay away from Betances, who threw 21 pitches in Friday night’s win, and he was able to for a while. Instead, Girardi called on him for 16 more, perhaps knowing there won’t be a reason to save any of his relievers if the Yankees spiral out of contention permanently.
“I figured you’re in that situation with a chance to win,” Girardi said, “you take a chance.”
Betances protected the tie, but only with Pagan’s help. Pagan, who drew a leadoff walk, made it to third with two outs. Girardi then huddled with Betances to talk about putting on Brandon Crawford, but the intentional walk nearly went horribly wrong when Betances airmailed the first pitch over a standing McCann.
Fortunately, Pagan never budged, and with the free pass waved off, Betances retired Crawford anyway. Betances later called the experience “nerve-wracking” and though he understood Girardi’s decision, wasn’t enthusiastic about it. When someone later asked Betances if he could have pitched the 12th as well, he replied, “You’re trying to kill me, huh?”
That told us all we needed to know about how far Girardi pushed the bullpen to get Saturday’s game. Once his big three were used up, the ball then went to Anthony Swarzak, and that was that. The Yankees dropped to 5-4 on this pivotal homestand, 49-48 overall, and felt considerably worse about their deteriorating situation than they did a day earlier.
A dozen innings, in late July, rarely torpedoes a season. But Saturday, as a steamy, sunny afternoon turned to darkness, this seemed to be one of those unusual times.
“It’s really difficult when something like that happens,” Girardi said. “When you don’t win a game like that. We’ve got to find a way to win tomorrow.”
Eventually, those tomorrows run out. And the Yankees moved a little closer to that expiration date Saturday.