This game, this series and this Yankees title defense essentially came down to three at-bats in the bottom of the fifth inning during Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night.
There is a terrible tendency, in hindsight, to judge only the results and fail to analyze a situation as it was originally presented. And as you try to wrap your head around the Yankees' 6-1 season-ending loss, it is difficult not to allow your head to get clouded with a constant loop of Vladimir Guerrero doubles and four-run frames.
The Rangers were the better team in this series. They're the team that took advantage of the mistakes that came, and they're the team that deserved to advance. But the bottom of the fifth inning is on Yankees manager Joe Girardi. And with the inning went the game and, ultimately, the ALCS and the Yankees' shot at defending their title.
With a man on third and two outs, Josh Hamilton came to bat in the fifth with the score tied, 1-1. New York had intentionally walked Hamilton, the eventual ALCS MVP, in the third inning in this exact same situation -- man on third, two outs -- and Guerrero, the designated hitter, popped out to second to end the inning.
But, as the saying goes, when you live by the sword you often die by it, and die the Yankees did on this night.
Girardi elected to walk Hamilton again, and Guerrero answered the second affront by ripping a hanging 1-0 curveball over the head of center fielder Curtis Granderson for a go-ahead two-run double.
So what should Girardi have done? Up to that point, he had intentionally walked six batters in the series and the next batter had gone 3-for-6 with six RBIs. It is safe to say, having dodged that bullet in the third, that walking Hamilton again was not the right play.
"It worked a couple of times, and then it didn't work after that," Girardi said. "I mean, Vlad Guerrero is no walk in the park, that's for sure. And we know how good of a hitter he is, and that's why you talk about, 'Well, why don't you just walk this guy?' Well, their lineup is complete, and that's what makes it so hard."
One can forgive the Yankees' skipper for not calling on his only left-handed reliever, Boone Logan. Twice before in the series, he called upon Logan to retire Hamilton and the results were a double and a home run. No, Logan was not the answer, either.
By why not CC Sabathia? Prior to the game, Girardi said that Sabathia was available.
"If I brought CC in, it would probably be for more than one hitter," Girardi said. "But it might end up being the third out of an inning in a sense, and then you might not send him back out."
And yet when presented with that exact situation, Girardi left the inning, the game, the series and the season in the hands of Hughes, who to that point had allowed 13 hits and eight earned runs to the Rangers in 8 2/3 innings over two starts.
"Hughesy has had success off Vlad Guerrero and got him out twice, and that's why he stayed there," Girardi explained after the game.
Sabathia needed to come in to face Hamilton. Sabathia is the ace of this team. He's the one with the $161 million contract, and he was available for a situation exactly like this one -- if you're going to get beat, he's the one you want on the mound.
Yes, Sabathia threw 112 pitches on Wednesday, but he's almost always been effective on short rest. He could've come in during that decisive frame, gotten the key out and handed the game over to Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera, the only dependable relievers at Girardi's disposal.
Worse yet, following Guerrero's double, Girardi compounded the error by turning to Robertson, who pitched in four games of the ALCS, all Yankees losses. So if not against Hamilton, why not go to Sabathia after Guerrero's double?
"Robby has done a good job with Nelson Cruz, and I just felt it was time to make a change," Girardi said.
And why not Sabathia?
"I went to a right-handed reliever," Girardi said. "We were facing right-handers, and that's where I decided to go. I went to David Robertson. You have to remember, CC was coming off a 112-pitch [game], so if there was a situation where we would use him against a left-hander, we were going to try to use him in a situation against the left-handers in the bottom of the order."
OK, if the decision was to go to a right-hander to face the right-handed-hitting Cruz and Ian Kinsler, why not turn to Wood?
"We were thinking about doing that," Girardi said. "We were trying to get Woody the sixth and seventh and Mo the eighth and ninth. And if we needed CC at some point, we were going to do that."
But it never came to that, because the moment to strike, to play your best hand, had passed. Robertson surrendered a back-breaking two-run home run to Cruz, giving the Rangers a four-run lead.
And therein lies the mistake -- when your back is to the wall, when it is "win or go home," you cannot manage to set up the next inning or the next game or even the next at-bat.
You cannot avoid Hamilton when Sabathia is available. You cannot let Hughes pitch to Guerrero. You cannot turn to Robertson instead of Wood. In short, Girardi never seemed to grasp that the entire game, the entire series, the entire season was on the line, right then, in the bottom of the fifth.
It was win, right then, or go home.
And now the Yankees are going home.