Howe Joe Does It

Bronx, N.Y., July 9, 2015; Yankees 6, A’s 2 — Having watched Joe Girardi pull two guys having more or less effective starts early over the last few days, it was easy to suspect that he’d be replacing starter Masahiro Tanaka with a reliever at any moment once the Yanks took a two-run lead after Thursday afternoon’s game vs the A’s went five. Pushed to 24 pitches in a two-run second, and over 90 once he pounded two-strike-out frames in the fourth and the sixth, the recently DL’d righty was ripe for the showers.

But Joe had other plans, and Masahiro did nothing to disrupt them. A notorious rester of his regulars, and a guy with solid rules preventing bullpen burnout, Girardi made clear in postgame interviews that with this being Tanaka’s last pre-All Star Game start, he was game to let the righty stretch it out. The fact that setup guy Dellin Betances was out after extensive work, and Andrew Miller had been pushed to 29 throws to close his return-from-the-DL game Wednesday, that Masahiro could deliver so many outs was a lucky break.

Or was it? Mr. Girardi has proved himself to be an excellent handler of relievers, but dealing with a rotation one or two short in solid arms is another matter. Tanaka struggled with control of his split-finger pitch in the second once Josh Reddick reached on catcher’s interference, and Billy Butler and Mark Canta doubles put him in a 2-1 hole, erasing the early lead Brett Gardner’s first-inning homer had put up. Masahiro’s had a few troubled starts since his return, and some wondered if yet another outing was slipping away.

But sticking with the splitter, Tanaka escaped more damage, getting six ground ball outs to retire the visitors over the second and third, a span during which shortstop Didi Gregorius, following on a popup to close the first, recorded two putouts and four assists. And Tanaka chipped in, charging a Steven Vogt swinging bunt in the first, trapping Ike Davis along the first base line in the seventh, and covering first when Vogt’s hot shot second inning grounder caromed off Garrett Stevens, manning first base as Mark Teixeira got a half day off as DH. No match for Tex at first, Jones handled 13 chances effectively.

The Yanks evened matters in the third when Gardner followed a Jacoby Ellsbury walk with his second of three hits, and Teixeira picked up his league-leading 62nd rbi with a single past second. Jones pinned Reddick to the right field wall with a drive that would have plated three, but righthander Jesse Chavez survived the 2-2 tie for one more frame. But in the home fourth, infielder Cole Figueroa, playing third in his first Yankee game, put the Yanks in business following a one-out Steven Drew walk with a controversial double down the first baseline. Ellsbury followed with a two-run single in the same direction, and Masahiro had all the runs he would need. Further, at the conclusion of the frame, we were advised that recent all-world outfielder Gardner had made the All Star squad as an injury replacement. He joins Teixeira and Betances on this year’s AL team.

Tanaka retired 18 of 19 to get it to two outs in the eighth when Girardi pulled him after his sixth strike out drove his pitch count to 114. His 77/37 strikes/balls ratio was superb, and despite early control troubles, an eight-out-of-nine first-pitch strikes result the second time through the A’s order carried him to a 17-10 ratio over all. He issued his only walk in the second, when the two doubles and an error yielded the only Oakland scores. And the offense ended right there. A two-out, ninth-inning single off Chasen Shreve was the A’s third and last hit.

Girardi coaxed Tanaka through his solid start, and he finished out the game while not using three of his best five relievers, and with ruthless precision. Shreve had the opportunity to record a four-out save until he allowed the Reddick single, at which point Joe brought in Adam Warren one batter before he would qualify for a save, and Warren responded with a three-pitch strike out of Butler to end it.

On what is the 196th anniversary of the birth of sewing machine inventor Elias Howe, you have to give Girardi credit. He has sewn together an effective lineup, with help from solid seasons from Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who got this day off, another Joe G trademark. Joe and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have built a bullpen that is the envy of most teams, and now he seems well on his way to setting up a truly solid rotation, capable of keeping the Yanks comfortably ahead of multiple division challenges.

Four years to the day since Derek Jeter had his magical 3,000th hit miracle day, TV actor Fred Savage celebrates his 39th birthday too. With Girardi’s seeming mastery over managing his team, I should be forgiven wondering whether he can lead the Yanks to a few more

Wonder Years