Friday night, the New York Yankees lost Game 2 of the ALDS to the Cleveland Indians in heartbreaking fashion, as their 8-3 lead evaporated and turned into a 9-8 loss in 13 innings (box score). The Yankees scored six runs in 2 2/3 innings against Corey Kluber and lost. Brutal. The Indians now lead the best-of-five series 2-0.
The indisputable turning point in Game 2 was Francisco Lindor's sixth-inning grand slam, which cut New York's lead from 8-3 to 8-7. That set the stage for the comeback. The grand slam was made possible by a Lonnie Chisenhall hit-by-pitch, a hit-by-pitch that should've been challenged by the Yankees but was not. Replays showed the ball hit the knob of the bat, not Chisenhall's hand, and deflected into catcher Gary Sanchez's glove for what should've been an inning-ending foul tip strike three.
The Yankees did not challenge the call -- hit-by-pitches are of course reviewable, the Yankees just never asked -- so Chisenhall was awarded first base to load the bases. Two pitches later, Lindor cranked the grand slam off the right field foul pole., if you somehow missed it:
Perhaps the Yankees would've blown the game anyway had they challenged the hit-by-pitch and been awarded an inning-ending strikeout. Or perhaps the umpire crew at MLB's headquarters in New York would have decided that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call, and the challenge could have netted the same result. Challenging the call doesn't guarantee a win for the Yankees. It does appear it would've made a win more likely, but we'll never know.
In the grand scheme of things, this only contributed to the Game 2 loss for the Yankees. Ace setup man Chad Green served up the grand slam to Lindor, the team's other ace setup man David Robertson allowed the game-tying home run to Jay Bruce in the eighth, and their other ace setup man Dellin Betances allowed the walk-off single to Yan Gomes in the 13th. New York's vaunted bullpen couldn't protect the lead. Also, the offense had three hits in their final eight innings.
The non-challenge was the start of the collapse for the Yankees. It was also the start of Girardi's problems, because things got no better for him after that, and most of it was own fault.
He did not trust his catcher
Girardi's relationship with Sanchez, already arguably the best catcher in the league, is interesting if nothing else. It was at the very same ballpark, Progressive Field in Cleveland, that Girardi publicly ripped Sanchez for a passed ball back in August. The passed ball allowed a run to score, Girardi called out Sanchez after the game, then backup Austin Romine started the next two games.
In Game 2 on Friday, Sanchez immediately pointed out the ball hit the knob of the bat, not Chisenhall's hand. He told reporters after the game he yelled "Foul! Foul!" and replays show him looking and pointing toward the dugout, the universal sign for "challenge this." Girardi did not challenge it. And after the game, Girardi said this:
"There was nothing that told us he was not hit on the pitch."
There was something -- someone -- who told Girardi that Chisenhall had not been hit. That someone was Sanchez. He was yelling out "Foul! Foul!" and looking for a challenge, and his calls went ignored. Girardi is an ex-catcher, remember. How would he feel if the roles were reversed, if he were the one behind the plate calling for a challenge in a huge moment, and having his calls go unanswered? Not too good, I'm sure.
I have no idea whether there is tension between Girardi and Sanchez. I'm around the Yankees a lot here in New York and I tend to think the answer is no. Girardi of course insisted there are no trust issues Saturday:
Girardi insisting there is no trust issue with Gary Sanchez. He did not challenge despite Sanchez asking him to.— Matt Ehalt (@MattEhalt) October 7, 2017
I think it's easy to understand why some might think there is not compete trust in this relationship, perhaps because Sanchez is still a kid in his first full MLB season. Whatever it is, trusting your players is crucial for any manager, and in that key moment Friday, Girardi did not trust one of his cornerstone players. Sanchez, who was an arm's length away from the play, was telling his manager to challenge and his manager did not do it.
He couldn't adapt to the situation
I will say this about Joe Girardi: he is nothing if not meticulously prepared. He lays out detailed charts and game plans each day -- his binder of information has been the butt of jokes for years among fans and media -- and rarely goes off script. Heck, when the Yankees played a meaningless Game 162 last week, Girardi joked he took it easy before the game by not preparing as many charts. That's who he is as a manager. He soaks in information and develops a plan.
There are times, however, when things go awry and Girardi seems unable to adapt, because he hasn't laid a plan for that specific situation. CC Sabathia cruised in Game 2 following a rough first two innings, but Girardi yanked him after 77 pitches because that was the plan. Sabathia has struggled once his pitch count got up to 80-85 at times this year. And when Green came in and labored, Girardi stuck with him rather than read the swings he from the dugout.
The Yankees, by far, have the highest challenge success rate in baseball. Girardi has been successful with 73 percent of his challenges over the years. The MLB average is 52 percent. Also, the Yankees challenge fewer plays than just about any team, because Girardi tends to save his challenges for sure things. He doesn't go for the Hail Mary challenge, that close play in a close game that could go either way.
In Game 2, when replay man Brett Weber was unable to find a clear evidence the pitch did not hit Chisenhall within the allotted 30 seconds to ask for a review, the play went unchallenged. Meanwhile, Girardi did not recognize Chisenhall sure as heck did not act like someone who just took a 95 mph fastball to the hand. He was in no pain. Getting hit in the hand hurts! There were plenty of indications the pitch did not hit Chisenhall, yet Girardi either did not consider or did not recognize them. He waited for the thumbs up from Weber because that's what he always does in his ultra-prepared state.
He did not take responsibility initially
This, to me, is especially damning. Girardi screwed up by not challenging. I know it, you know it, pretty much everyone knows it. Girardi knows it, too. Yet, in his postgame press conference, Girardi's immediate reaction was to not accept the blame. He instead gave this answer when asked about not challenging the hit-by-pitch:
"Being a (former) catcher, my thought is I never want to break a pitcher's rhythm. That's how I think about it."
Yikes. I'm not sure where to start with this one. First of all, not wanting to break the pitcher's rhythm is gobbledygook. Four innings after the non-challenge, the Yankees had a play reviewed in which a throw may not have sailed into the camera well, thus avoiding an extra base. That happened while Aroldis Chapman is on the mound. Also, baseball these days is full of mound visits, and few catchers make as many as Sanchez. That breaks rhythm, too. And, in the AL Wild Card Game, Girardi went to the mound in the sixth inning to tell Robertson the current batter would be his last. Didn't want to break his rhythm, huh?
The bigger issue here is the apparent unwillingness to say, "I screwed it up." It happens. We're all human and we all screw up. And when we make mistakes, we own it. Aaron Judge struck out in an MLB record 37 consecutive games earlier this season, and after every game he stood at his locker and owned it, saying he needs to be better. Chapman and Betances struggled so much at times this year they had to be demoted to low-leverage work. They answered the questions and accepted the blame. It's part of being a baseball player.
For what it's worth, Girardi on Saturdayfor not challenging the hit-by-pitch during his workout day press conference.
Joe Girardi: “I screwed up. It’s hard. It’s a hard day for me. But I’ve got to move forward and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) October 7, 2017
And yet, the initial reaction was to deflect blame. The obvious screw up was met with, "Being a (former) catcher ...," which is baseball speak for "I know best, don't question me." At best, Girardi did not immediately understand the reasons that led to his inaction. At worst, he knows he screwed up and still declined to accept the blame for at least one day, which is a terrible look for the public leadership face of the most popular and most recognizable baseball team on the planet.
The Yankees blew their big lead because they failed to execute on many levels. Green hung a slider to Lindor. The offense went to sleep after the fifth inning. Pinch-runner Ronald Torreyes was inexcusably picked off second base for the first out of the 11th inning with the top of the lineup due up. There is a lot of blame to go around after a loss like that, a loss that puts the Yankees on the brink of elimination.
In the end, Girardi is going to shoulder most of the blame because he failed to execute in the highest profile moment of the game. His greatest flaw -- his ability to adjust when things don't go according to plan -- was on full display, as was his possible mistrust of Sanchez. And, worst of all, Girardi did not own up to the mistake initially. Mistakes happen. Wear it and move on. Girardi wouldn't, and now a simply (yet massive) blunder looks even worse.