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New York Yankees: You Can’t Pin This Loss On Hughes

Phil Hughes of the New York Yankees entered last night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles with the eyes of the “Empire” fixed squarely on him.  Admittedly, he had pitched poorly in April and came into the contest with an ERA hovering around 8.00  (it was 7.88).  Many critics looked at the start as one of his final chances to remain in the rotation.

The results were mixed as the starter went 5 2/3 innings yielding four runs – including two home runs in taking yet another loss 7 – 1.  This gave a louder voice to those calling for his demotion to the bullpen, and to look at the box score you’d have to agree with them.

Except the box score doesn’t really give you the entire story.

A closer look at the game reveals multiple miscues that led to Phil Hughes demise last night.  Only two of those – the home runs he yielded – can be blamed on the pitcher.  The rest lie on the shoulders of the New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

From the outset, Girardi left his starting pitcher handcuffed with a less-than-adequate lineup.  Before the game began the pressure was on Hughes to keep it low-scoring as the bottom half of the New York Yankees order included two light-hitting catchers (the big league club’s only catchers) sitting in the 7th and 9th spots.  With Chris Stewart (.235) behind the plate, and Russell Martin (.158) as the DH, Girardi left no flexibility in the lineup.  If Stewart got injured, or the situation called for a pinch hitter in his spot (which it would later in the game), then Martin would have to catch and they would lose the DH (and that happened) for the remainder of the game.  Basically, unless the first six batters in the New York Yankees lineup produced, the team needed its young starter to hold the Orioles at bay.

Why would Girardi throw together that lineup?  Why would he have Russell Martin at DH and not the hot-hitting Eric Chavez (.321) ?  As I heard the lineup announced those were the first questions that came to mind.  Then, I realized why.

To fully understand Joe Girardi’s reasoning, you have to understand what type of manager the New York Yankees have.  His moves are guided by statistics and trends rather than common sense or feel.  So much so, that he has been given the unofficial nickname of “Binder Joe” – a reference to the binder he keeps by his side in the dugout that contains the aforementioned statistics and trends.  Eric Chavez is a much better hitter than Russell Martin, but he is a left-handed hitter and the Orioles southpaw Brian Matusz was taking the mound.  Statistics say you try to load up on right-handers against lefties, and in Matusz’s case right-handed batters were hitting .333 against him.  Clearly the New York Yankees chances were better with righties loaded in their lineup.

So, if you are trying to give Martin the day off behind the plate, why have him in the DH spot rather than another right-handed hitter?  The answer to this brings us to yet another New York Yankees management mistake.

On April 19th the team placed starting left fielder Brett Gardner on the disabled list with a bruised elbow and muscle strain.  To replace him on the roster, the Yankees called up Cody Eppley, a right handed relief pitcher.  On April 29th, starting right fielder Nick Swisher suffered a low-grade hamstring strain rendering him out of the lineup for multiple games.  Rather than placing Swisher on the disabled list, the New York Yankees chose to leave him on the active roster while he recovers.  As a result, the Yankee outfield ranks were down two, and the only other available right-handed bats off the bench – Eduardo Nunez and Andruw Jones – were forced into the starting lineup.

The only way Joe Girardi could abide by the rules of statistics was to have Russell Martin at DH.

As the saying goes “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”, and needless to say, Joe Girardi’s mistakes would haunt the New York Yankees last night.

In the sixth inning it seemed that Phil Hughes had hit his stride.  He entered the frame having retired 8 of the last 10 batters, and promptly got two of the Orioles best hitters – Nick Markakis and Adam Jones – out.  In spite of a pitch count nearing 100, he appeared strong on the mound, regularly hitting 93 mph with his fastball.  With two outs, and on his 100th pitch, he hit the back foot of O’s catcher Mark Wieters with a sharp low breaking ball.  To my amazement, Girardi immediately came out of the dugout and put irratic reliever Boone Logan into the game.  The rest of the game is history as Logan would not retire a batter and Wieters would score (and be charged as an earned run against Hughes)  in what turned into a 3-run inning for the Orioles.

I shook my head as I realized that the New York Yankees manager had pulled Phil Hughes because of the fact that he had thrown 100 pitches.  It had nothing to do with how Hughes was performing, or how good his pitches were.  Instead, it was Girardi being Girardi and following what the binder was telling him.

The lineup would produce no more runs for the Bronx Bombers as the top three in the order were a combined 7-for-12 while the rest of the order was 0-for-22.

The use of Nunez in left field (for only the fifth time in his career) would come back to burn the Yankees as well.  In that same fateful sixth inning, the infielder-forced-into-outfielder badly misplayed a fly ball by Nick Johnson and it resulted in two more runs scoring.

If an outfielder had been called up to replace Brett Gardner, the hand-cuffed lineup and inadequate outfield defense would not have been an issue last night.

Going solely on what the box score shows, one would say yes, Phil Hughes had another poor start.  However, the truth of the matter is that if you watched the game you would know the 26-year-old actually pitched well, and the blame for the loss should be directed at New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and his beloved binder.