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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Joe Girardi managing Yankees pitchers to win now

Yankee Stadium is reflected in the sunglasses of

Yankee Stadium is reflected in the sunglasses of New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi during batting practice prior to their home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on Monday, April 10, 2017. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The optics, as they say, were not ideal. One out away from his potential first victory as a Yankee, Jaime Garcia glanced over his shoulder and noticed Joe Girardi striding purposefully toward the mound, lifting his right arm to signal the bullpen.

But as Girardi approached, Garcia kept his back turned, then handed off the baseball with a blank stare, muttering to himself during the long exit. The irritation on Garcia’s face was obvious. His disgust was so pronounced that Girardi took him aside later in the dugout to remind Garcia, their faces inches apart, of this team’s September mission.

“This is all about winning games now,” Girardi said after the Yankees held on to edge the Rays, 3-2, Wednesday at Citi Field. “When we ask you to pitch, it’s when when we need you, and do your job.”

Or in this case, when Girardi decides he no longer requires your services, step aside so that Chad Green or David Robertson or whatever reliever du jour the manager fancies can tidy up after you. Garcia had waited two weeks for Wednesday’s start, and Girardi trusted him to get a grand total of 14 outs, despite the Yankees’ 3-1 lead.

He didn’t want Garcia facing Evan Longoria as the tying run in the fifth inning, even though he got him out in his first two at-bats. And with the supernatural Green warmed and ready, we endorsed Girardi’s decision. But that didn’t mean Garcia had to swallow hard with a smile, and after the talking-to from the manager, he coolly handled the postgame interrogation.

“I don’t ever want to come out of a game,” Garcia said. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. But the main thing is to help this team win ballgames and get to the playoffs.”

Garcia added that he appreciated Girardi’s dugout tete-a-tete, even if he didn’t appear in the mood, from what we could tell from the TV monitor. But Garcia wasn’t the only pitcher to publicly display his irritation with Girardi — during a crucial win, no less. Dellin Betances also flashed a look of exasperation when Girardi arrived to pull him with two outs and a runner on in the eighth.

Betances seemed to roll his eyes, the gum half-hanging from his mouth, as he stood at the back of the mound, looking anywhere but at Girardi. Pulling Garcia is one thing. He’s a fringe rotation piece, hardly a key component to the Yankees’ postseason push. But Betances is another level. He’s a pivotal late-inning reliever, with a fairly delicate psyche, and messing with his confidence may carry some longer-term risk.

Yet Girardi plowed ahead anyway and chose to call on Aroldis Chapman for a four-out save. Remember, Chapman wasn’t even the closer a week earlier, still serving his probationary period after last month’s demotion. But the manager wanted the lefty Chapman for Steven Souza — the numbers showed that might help neutralize his power — and the Yankees barely survived Girardi’s machinations by game’s end.

Chapman needed 34 pitches to get those four outs, and surrendered a pair of walks and an RBI single before nailing down his 18th save. Could Betances have polished off Souza to kill that rally? Maybe. He already had a visit from pitching coach Larry Rothschild to settle him after Longoria’s one-out single, so Girardi’s faith was eroding fast. And this manager, to his credit, cares almost zero for a player’s sensitivity in those situations.

“I’ve got to make the moves that I believe in my heart and what other things tell me,” Girardi said. “I don’t do this on a whim.”

Betances left the clubhouse while the media was in with Girardi, so we didn’t get to take his temperature after the game. Girardi is not going to win any clubhouse popularity contests, but the Yankees make sure he has every stat known to man at his fingertips — and he doesn’t have that “Binder” nickname for nothing. There are benefits to being a more patient string-puller. These pitchers are human, after all, and extending a bit more faith in these tight spots can be rewarding in the future.

But Girardi isn’t interested in feelings during September, not with 17 games left, and the Yankees still chasing the Red Sox for a division title. Buckle up, because he’s going to be at his button-pushing craziest down the stretch.

“Now’s the time for the team,” the manager said.

And with that, Girardi offers no apologies. Nor should he.

New York Sports