CLEVELAND — Smart managers know that timing is everything when it comes to taking a stand.
For example, never have one of those clubhouse meetings to flex your motivational muscle when you’re facing Chris Sale or Clayton Kershaw that same night. The odds of such a move backfiring are too great. Pick your spots.
With that in mind, Joe Girardi’s bold decision to bench Gary Sanchez for Sunday’s series finale against the Indians was a head-scratcher.
Sanchez has been horrible behind the plate. We get that. And the manager’s frustration with his poor defense clearly has boiled over. We understand that, too.
But Girardi chose to perform a triple Axel on some very thin ice by taking the extreme measure of leaving Sanchez out of Sunday’s lineup entirely, going with Austin Romine (whose average dropped to .221) behind the plate for a day game after a night game and using Brett Gardner as the DH.
The Yankees snapped a four-game losing streak the previous night — also with Sanchez on the bench — but still had scored only five runs in the previous four games when they faced Cleveland on Sunday.
With the Red Sox moving three games ahead of the Yankees atop the AL East and the Yankees’ lineup looking more feeble by the day, this was the time Girardi felt it necessary to teach Sanchez a lesson? Although he refused to call this a benching, that’s precisely how it came off, and it was a risky call.
“The start is not the message,” Girardi said before Sunday’s game. “The message is from us verbally telling him your defense needs to improve.”
We’d suggest having the conversation, then using him at DH anyway. But Girardi got to enjoy playing the disciplinarian Sunday because the Yankees backed him with an 8-1 rout, outlasting the Indians’ tough Carlos Carrasco to earn a series split after dropping the first two to the defending AL champs. Aaron Judge smacked his 35th homer, a three-run shot, and Jacoby Ellsbury delivered the pivotal hit, a three-run triple that sparked a five-run sixth inning.
The collective exhale was made possible by Luis Severino stifling the Indians, as he allowed two hits and struck out nine in 6 2⁄3 innings. It was about as good a win as the Yankees have had all season, the only imperfection being Romine’s 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, but that’s going to happen when you opt for the defensive specialist at catcher.
Like everyone else, Romine was surprised to see his name in Sunday’s lineup. “I’m the backup,” he said, “so you never know.”
After the Yankees shook free of their offensive funk and did it without Sanchez, we’re wondering if this intrigue at the catcher position will continue. Does Sunday’s victory convince Girardi that he can keep the pressure on Sanchez and perhaps stick with Romine until the manager is satisfied with the fallen All-Star’s progress?
We already suggested after Sanchez’s Friday follies that the Yankees might be better off with him at DH, and the spot was vacated Sunday when Matt Holliday landed on the 10-day disabled list with a back strain. But we never anticipated Sanchez being held out of the lineup for two games, with Girardi saying that Sanchez used Sunday morning to catch Sonny Gray’s bullpen session.
Girardi also repeatedly praised the job Romine did Saturday night, especially with Aroldis Chapman, whose triple-digit fastball and wicked slider can be challenging. The manager went on to talk about how “most” people think Sanchez “caught better” last year and sort of co-signed the theory that his additional bulk this season could be affecting his defense.
To his credit, Sanchez has never ducked the media scrutiny, and he dutifully was at his locker after Sunday’s win, even though he didn’t appear in the game. Yes, he expected to play Sunday when he arrived at the ballpark, and he said he didn’t know the reason for taking a seat instead. By now, he certainly understands that Girardi isn’t satisfied with his defensive effort.
“The thing is, I’m working hard,” Sanchez said through his translator. “I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made some errors. The bottom line is, I need to improve.”
Girardi agrees. But after publicly drawing the line this weekend, the manager doubled down Sunday — and won big. Now we’ll see how far he chooses to push his luck with the Sanchez agenda.