With the Yankees entering last night's action having gone 2-5 on their current road trip, including being swept by the Angels in Anaheim, it's difficult not to look for and find signs that the end is nigh. After all, Joe Girardi's team now stands 8.5 games behind the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays with 44 games to play; according to the latest polls, Senator Obama has a better chance of winning the East than the Yankees do. Entry to the postseason through the wild card remains a possibility, but consider Girardi's lineup for last night's game, which has an oracular quality of its own.
The Yankees are facing the Twins, one of two teams in front of them — the other is the Red Sox — in the wild card race. Given the Yankees' position, all games now qualify as must-win, but as the current series represents their last regular season shot at this direct rival, these games take on added importance. They also promise to be especially difficult, as the Twins have a .650 winning percentage at home. This is the same as being a 105-win team over a full season. Given these conditions, the Yankees need to have their best team on the field to have a chance of winning.
That's not exactly how the Yankees elected to go into the first game of the three-game series last night's starting lineup against Minnesota left-hander Glen Perkins began with journeyman Justin Christian leading off and playing left field — manager Joe Girardi decided to give American League batting average leader Johnny Damon an unasked-for day off — and ended with Melky Cabrera, an ostensible switch-hitter batting .221 AVG/.289 OBA/.311 SLG against southpaws and .230/.278/.298 overall in 87 games since April. These two non-hitters bookend such age-diminished players as Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Richie Sexson, and Pudge Rodriguez. Non-zombies included Xavier Nady, so far one of the best midseason acquisitions in team history by virtue of a .365/.431/.731 hot streak, and Alex Rodriguez, having a fine season overall but facing legitimate criticism for choking in the clutch. In the either-or category: Robinson Cano, batting .300/.329/.450 since his murderously poor April but only 2-for-12 in the Angels series.
This might have been a championship-level lineup a few years ago, when Jeter still had his speed, Abreu and Ivan Rodriguez were still .300 hitters with power, and Sexson could be counted on for 30 to 40 home runs a year. Now it represents only the compromises that injuries and a lack of vital youth can force on a team. Worse, it's not even the best lineup the Yankees can play.
The lineup represents Girardi's worst quality. An affable and intelligent manager, Girardi can be headstrong in his choices, sticking to his guns in the face of evidence that his tactics aren't working. This can be seen clearly in his decision to push Damaso Marte into a second inning of work twice in one week, resulting in losses both times. That's just two games. His wrongheaded embrace of platooning provides a more protracted example of a decision that hasn't paid off. For all his machinations, the Yankees remain a game under .500 when a left-hander starts against them.
Platooning is a commonsense strategy most of the time, especially when it comes to left-handed hitters — most right-handed batters don't have the same handicap facing same-side pitchers as their lefty brethren do. Yet, not all lefty hitters are created equal, and the same can be said of lefty pitchers. Failure to understand this has led Girardi to some wrongheaded decisions, such as sitting Jason Giambi, one of the team's two consistent power threats, against most lefties.
The Twins' Glen Perkins is a pitch-to-contact lefty with home run problems. He has had a very difficult time retiring left-handers this year, allowing them to hit .338 in 80 at bats. While you never know which pitcher might have a specific hitter's number, Perkins isn't Steve Carlton in his prime. Giambi, and for that matter Damon, would not have been blindly swinging at a dominating slider; they would have been able to put the ball in play. When hitters of their quality make contact, good things generally happen — but the Yankees will never know, because they're not playing. On a team that can't call on reliable regulars such as Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, to have the manager take additional steps to minimize the offense is self-defeating. A platoon only makes sense if the hitters you are playing have a better chance of succeeding than the ones you are benching. With Girardi turning to the likes of Sexson, Cabrera, and Wilson Betemit, his lineups fail that most basic test.
You know what Yogi Berra said — it ain't over, etc. The Rays are having injury problems — losing Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford to the DL. The Red Sox are inconsistent. By the time you read this, the Yankees may even have won with this compromised lineup, because anything can happen in a single game. Yet the truth remains: If the Yankees had the same winning percentage against lefties that they had against righties, they'd be right behind the Red Sox, and if this lineup is the best they can do in a key game, the season is already over.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for yesnetwork.com and is the author of "Forging Genius," a biography of Casey Stengel.