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Girardi played it smart down the stretch, and reaped the benefits

The topic of whether or not Joe Girardi's Yankees went all out to win the division title still seems slightly sensitive around 161st St. and River Ave. in the South Bronx. But it shouldn't be.

It seems apparent that Girardi refused to put a meaningless regular-season title ahead of his players' health and a chance to avoid pitching nemesis (and possible future Yankee) Cliff Lee. It's not that the Yankees weren't trying. It's that they weren't putting their efforts to win a division above all else.

Girardi did exactly the right thing.

Even some Yankees people late in the regular season were starting to question Girardi for what they perceived as a "mixed message'' about the value of an AL East title as they finished their final 26 games with a very un-Yankees-like 9-17 record. The team looked like it was sliding downhill, and some folks inside the organization were concerned.

But now, after the wild-card-winning Yankees avoided the possibility of having to confront Lee twice in a five-game ALDS and instead faced their favorite October patsy, the Twins, whom they again eliminated in three straight, Girardi's strategy shouldn't be questioned at all. As things stand today, the Yankees, who advanced to the ALCS unscathed and basically untouched, couldn't be in better shape. They are healthy, well-rested and on a roll at the right time. And Girardi deserves plaudits for that.

"He doesn't get enough credit for the way he runs a ball club in a market like this, as tough as it is,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Girardi has to pay some lip service to going all-out to win, which he did again after the ALDS, when he talked about how his club wanted home field -- "Believe me, we were trying. We were trying to win our division.'' And it's fair to say, it clearly wasn't anything like a tank job, as Mark Teixeira continued to play through an assortment of injuries to the end of the regular season. Girardi didn't rest any of his regulars.

They certainly didn't try to lose. They just didn't treat the mostly meaningless games as must-wins.

But if Girardi is really going all-out for the division crown, there is no way Javier Vazquez -- who Girardi lost faith in long ago -- is starting a game in the final week of the year. And there is no way he is resting key members of the bullpen.

That's OK. The Yankees tried hard enough. They got what they wanted. Thanks to Girardi, they are in the best possible position to defend their World Series title. Girardi and the Yankees did nothing wrong. They were wise to approach their final regular-season games as essentially meaningless when they already had the coveted playoff spot wrapped up. They weren't going to risk hurting themselves for the "reward'' of drawing Lee, a proven playoff warrior.

Once again, after the Twins were dispatched without much muss or fuss, Girardi called all the talk of a "mixed message'' a "misunderstanding.'' Whatever the case, it worked out well for the team trying to win its 28th World Series title. How many division titles have they won? Exactly. Nobody around there cares.

Girardi's call to start a diminished Andy Pettitte over Phil Hughes in Game 2 was the correct one, as was the decision to go with a resurgent Hughes in Game 3. And the one to leave out stumbling A.J. Burnett (whom Yankees people believe seems distracted and suffering from a lack of concentration) was also right.

In every case, what Girardi did was proper for his team. The goal, as it always is for the Yankees, is to win another World Series.

Even if some of those working at 161st and River didn't think that Girardi handled the situation perfectly at the time, the result was perfect. Girardi's team swept a Twins team that was laboring worse than them at the end. ("They were horrible,'' one AL scout said.) It's a Twins team that has no October shot against them.

Gardenhire had to be asked about his team's inability to beat the Yankees in the postseason. And he had to respond exactly the way he did.

"That's a sad question,'' he snapped at the questioner after Game 2.

Gardenhire has to pretend that the elephant in the room doesn't exist. But there has to be serious doubt in the Minnesota clubhouse.

The Twins are a game team that can play the Yankees to a draw over a 162-game schedule, yet can't beat them come October. The Yankees are a better, more talented team. But nine-straight-October-games-in-a-row better?

There is little doubt that the Twins are psyched out by the Yankees, if not intimidated. Hey, it happens. The Twins are a scrappy bunch of overachievers who are to be commended for winning their division even after losing Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau. But they see some of the greatest players ever on the other side of the field, and that's no exaggeration. Alex Rodriguez will likely be the alltime home run leader, Derek Jeter is one of the greatest October players ever and Mariano Rivera is undoubtedly the greatest closer of all time.

If any one player can be intimidating, it's Rivera. The Twins have to know that they can't be behind when the eighth inning comes around. That puts a lot of pressure on a team.

Considering that Nathan and Morneau were out and Joe Mauer was badly hobbled, the Twins were dead before they started. It's just a wonder that they played as well as they did over 162 games.

Sandy Alderson is perceived to be the favorite heading into this week's interviews, with at least four main candidates for the Mets GM job. And there's probably good reason for that.

Alderson has close ties to commissioner Bud Selig, who has close ties to Mets owner Fred Wilpon. And Alderson himself has longtime ties to Wilpon. Plus, there's a burgeoning groundswell of support among fans and some in the media for Alderson, as soon as word got out he had interest in the job. There is definite momentum for Alderson now.

White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, ex-Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes and ex-Royals GM Allard Baird are all excellent candidates, as well, though. Hahn has been in the middle of a very successful baseball operation and somehow stayed above the crazy fray that exists on the South Side, Byrnes is as bright and honest as they come and deserves another chance after an abrupt Arizona ending, and Baird is an excellent baseball man caught in an impossible situation in Kansas City who's now working out very well in Boston.

But Alderson is the type of name that Mets fans seem to be craving now.

It also doesn't hurt that he appears to want the job. "The baseball side of the business is the fun side,'' Alderson, 62, said by phone. "The possibility of devoting all my time to the fun side is appealing.''

Mets fans seem moved. The process isn't over yet, though. In fact, it's just beginning.

The interviews will start this week, and there is reason to believe that the Mets will seriously consider the younger guys, too. After all, three of the four candidates coming in fit into that younger group -- though the more experienced Terry Ryan and Gerry Hunsicker were also in the top group and are presumed to have declined to interviews at this point. (Dan Jennings, yet another excellent baseball man from the first group, didn't receive permission from his Marlins to interview with their rival, as his contract runs through 2015.)

Got to give the Mets this: Their list is superb, though the top group apparently doesn't include any of the available qualified minorities. Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng, for instance, hadn't been contacted as of Saturday, according to her text response. Selig apparently believes that the Mets should have leeway in this area based on their excellent track record (Omar Minaya, Jerry Manuel and Willie Randolph all have held big jobs for them).

While the four men about to be interviewed or Jerry Di Poto, the ex-Met and D-Backs exec who intrigues them, are the main candidates now, there's another possibility. The Mets' three-headed ownership committee of the two Wilpons (Fred and Jeff, the team's COO) plus Saul Katz, could ultimately wind up split on this. And if that's the case, it's possible that Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who has an "out'' in his contract, could enter the picture. The conventional wisdom is that Daniels will wind up with a multiyear deal to remain in Texas, But he is from Bayside, Queens, the Rangers had a terrific year, and he looms as an intriguing option.

For today though, the leading contenders appear to be Alderson, Hahn, Byrnes and Baird.

• The current belief among baseball people seems to be that Bobby Valentine is the favorite for the Mariners managing job, Eric Wedge for the Pirates job, Bob Melvin for the Brewers job, interim Mike Quade for the Cubs job and Fredi Gonzalez for the Braves job.

Carl Crawford, considered along with Jayson Werth the top free-agent position payer on the market, could help his value immensely if he were willing to play center field, one scout opined. Apparently, Crawford prefers left field to the point of declining the idea of center. Even so, one executive said he could see Crawford getting an eight-year deal, considering Mark Teixeira got an eight-year deal.

• Pitching coach Mike Maddux has to be credited for the improvement of the Rangers' pitchers, even though a lot of folks will credit club president Nolan Ryan, the alltime great. Maddux had similar success in Milwaukee, which has had pitching problems since.

• The loss of Billy Wagner hurts the Braves, but they have some "great arms,'' in their 'pen, one NL scout said. Wagner was replaced by Takashi Saito, who some scouts think was burned out earlier by Bobby Cox. Other scouts say Cox overused Jonny Venters, as well.

Brooks Conrad made three errors in Game 3. Hopefully, Martin Prado's replacement recalls that he had some big hits this year for the Braves to get them into the playoffs in the first place.

• Free-agent-to-be Carlos Peña helped himself with a nice Game 4 in the ALDS after his off-year. If he doesn't re-sign with Tampa Bay, the Nationals are a possibility. Washington wants to emphasize defense, so it seems unlikely that it will re-sign Adam Dunn. Dunn should be in the AL as a DH, though people close to him suggest that he is reluctant to give up the glove and finally switch leagues.

• One scout said he thinks that Madison Bumgarner is going to be better than Jonathan Sanchez, who is pretty darned good himself.

Ron Roenicke, the Angels' third base coach emerging as a managerial candidate in Toronto and elsewhere, is known around the Angels for giving a stirring sermon about losing a loved one following the untimely and tragic death of Nick Adenhart.

• Several competitors chastised me for not including A's exec Billy Owens on my list of prospective GM candidates. The MLB powers probably weren't too thrilled, either, as along with De Jon Watson and Ng, Owens is one of the better minority candidates around.

Jimmy Rollins is clearly not at full strength. They have a lot of tough guys on this Phillies team.

• A person familiar with the Dodgers' situation predicted a "blood bath'' only a couple days before well-regarded president Dennis Mannion was fired. There could be more firings, but a Dodgers person suggested the phrase "blood bath'' was overstating what was about to happen. In any case, Frank McCourt may not be done making changes.

• As for Barry Zito being inactive, the Mariners are breathing a sigh of relief because they made a very competitive offer to the $126 million, seven-year deal he got from San Francisco after the 2006 season. It is believed to have been for six years, but it was frontloaded and the Mariners figured they were going to get him at the time.

• Fans want replay expanded more than those in the game, it seems. Players union chief Michael Weiner said that players' opinions about replay run the "spectrum'' from no more replay to expand it plenty. Most baseball folks (players and executives included), though, don't see the viability of expanding replay to include balls/strikes or checked-swing calls. A fair number don't want any expansion at all.

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