ARLINGTON, Texas -- When a visiting pitcher gets into trouble in the Ballpark here, the Rangers like to play the Johnny Cash song "Ring of Fire," as images of flames light up the LED boards attached to the mezzanine's facade that circles the field. The Yankees heard the song's mariachi horns frequently during the three ALCS games they played here -- and there were only three, because the Rangers won the third on Friday night to give them a 4-2 series victory and their first World Series appearance -- and, to many, its lyrics might have described the managerial patterns of Joe Girardi. I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames went higher.
Girardi's a fidgety presence in the dugout. Sometimes his critics say that his decisions are too by-the-book -- or too by-the-binder, in reference to the three-ringed collection of stats to which he sometimes refers when making matchup decisions. Sometimes his critics say that his decisions are not by-the-book enough. He was criticized for leaving in A.J. Burnett too long in Game 4 -- long enough for Bengie Molina to hit a go-ahead three-run homer against him -- even though Burnett still looked rather strong.
"You know, if you take A.J. out there and you give up a couple of runs, people say, why did you take A.J. out?" Girardi said after that game. "That's the nature of this business when you're a manager. If things go right, they say, well, you do the right thing. If things go wrong, they say, well, you made the mistake."
Things went wrong, again on Friday, and Girardi will again be criticized. He might be criticized for having Phil Hughes intentionally walk Josh Hamilton with two outs and a man on second in the third inning, trailing 1-0, thereby putting another man on when facing Vladimir Guerrero, seventh on the active leaderboard in career RBIs. Hughes threw a wild pitch in the middle of that intentional walk. "Ring of Fire" blared, and Girardi visited the mound (something he likes to do often, another habit that draws censure). Guerrero popped out.
Girardi will definitely be criticized for calling for another intentional walk of Hamilton (to whom Girardi ended up giving an ALCS-record five free passes in the series, and who ended up the series' MVP) in the fifth inning, as chants of "M-V-P" rang out from the crowd, after the Yankees had tied the score at 1-1. The situation was the same: Mitch Moreland was on base, and Guerrero was to follow. This time, however, Guerrero hit a 1-0 curveball on a line to left-center, and the score was 3-1. Then Girardi replaced Hughes with David Robertson, and Nelson Cruz crushed his sixth pitch into the stands in left-center, and it was 5-1. The game was essentially over. Things had gone wrong; ergo, Girardi's mistake.
There is yet more for which you can, if you so choose, blame Girardi. How, for example, he seemed to let his club coast into the postseason after the conclusion of an eight-game win streak on Sept. 4. They went 9-17 after that. Of course, it didn't seem to hurt them in their ALDS sweep of the Twins.
Over the next days and weeks, Girardi's decisions will be discussed, contemplated, picked apart. In reality, however, it is difficult to think that the ultimate outcome would have been much different, no matter the tactical moves made by the Yankees manager. The Rangers were simply the better team, in virtually every way.
"You just got to give them credit," said Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher in a quiet visitors clubhouse. "They beat us straight up."
"They got great pitching, they swung the bats well, they got big hits, they did everything you need to do to win playoff baseball games," said first baseman Lance Berkman. "And they won."
The Rangers won 90 games in the regular season, but the club that defeated the Yankees was different from the one they fielded for most of the season, in that it was whole -- particularly at their lineup's heart. Manager Ron Washington's ideal Nos. 2-6 hitters are, in order, Michael Young, Hamilton, Guerrero, Cruz and Ian Kinsler, but Washington's lineup featured that quintet in its entirety in only 43 games during the regular season, due to injuries. Hamilton, the probable AL MVP, played in 133 games this season, Cruz in 108, Kinsler in just 103. All were healthy, or healthy enough, by the postseason, and all hit Nos. 2-6 in every game of the ALCS. As a group, they hit .310 in the series (their 35 hits were just three fewer than the Yankees' total), with six homers and 22 RBIs.
"Their lineup is complete," said Girardi, "and that's what makes it so hard."
Hughes did not question Girardi's decision to walk Hamilton, the most dangerous player in a dangerous lineup.
"My job isn't to speculate about moves -- that's Joe's decision," he said. "My job is to get the guy out. And I couldn't do it."
There was just one game during the regular season in which none of the Rangers' "Big 5," as it were, participated -- on Sept. 26, against a Cy Young candidate (Trevor Cahill), in a pitchers' park (the Oakland Coliseum) -- and the Rangers scored 16 runs, a season-high. That game demonstrated that the Rangers' lineup is about more than its center, and possibly as deep as the Yankees'. Indeed, Hughes called Moreland, Texas' rookie No. 9 hitter, "One of the toughest outs in this series," and Moreland's on-base percentage of .450 trailed only Hamilton's Girardi-aided .536.
Just as the Rangers' offense was spearheaded by their lineup's heart, but ran deeper than that, their pitching staff was led by Cliff Lee, but ran deeper. Lee received most of the ink in this series, and the Yankees couldn't beat him, but they could not beat Tommy Hunter or Colby Lewis, either. This is another gap that strategizing by Girardi would very likely not have bridged. Even though Lee pitched just once in the series, Rangers pitchers compiled a cumulative ERA of 3.06, to the Yankees' 6.58. Four Yankees finished the series with ERAs that featured four digits.
"It's about pitching," a haggard Jorge Posada kept saying as he sat on a stool in front of his locker. "It's about pitching."
It's about pitching, it's about hitting, it's about fielding, it's about baserunning -- and the Yankees, in the end, had the advantage on the Rangers in none of those areas, leading to an ALCS loss in which they were outscored 38-19 cumulatively. It's about managing too, of course, and Girardi, whose contract just expired, will be vivisected up to and beyond the day on which he almost inevitably signs a new one. The course of this series, however, was set not by the moves Girardi made or didn't make, but by the fact that the Rangers simply outplayed the Yankees, and outplayed them badly. For the Yankees, that course was similar to the one described, to the blasting of those mariachi horns, by the Man in Black.