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Stellar pitching, Girardi's shrewd moves lift Yankees

NEW YORK -- This American League Division Series victory was brought to you in part, by spotless pitching, and by the new and improved Joe Girardi.

It took the New York Yankees the full five games to get beyond an intrepid group of Baltimore Orioles and qualify for a spot in the AL Championship Series opposite the Detroit Tigers. But the way the Yankees pitched, they would have won all five games, given just normal run production. But given normal run production, they would have only had to play three.

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CC Sabathia was even better than usual in winning the clincher Friday night, a 3-1 decision over the Orioles. He had this series book-ended, also winning the first game with a fine start. Overall, the Yankees' starters produced three starts that were outstanding, one that was at least competent, and this last one, that, given the circumstances, could be called a classic.

And the New York bullpen was not overtaxed, even with back-to-back extra-inning games, because no Yanks starter pitched fewer than 6 2/3 innings and Sabathia worked 17 2/3 innings over his two starts. The bullpen repaid the favor by not giving up a run. Baltimore's pitching prevented the Yankees from scoring bunches of runs except for the ninth inning of Game 1. But the Yankees' pitching was better still, measured by either the numbers or the eyes.

The Orioles could only score two runs per game in this series. The Yankees weren't knocking down any walls, either, with 16 runs, so this kind of top-shelf performance from the pitching staff was a necessity.

Baltimore's team batting average was .187. New York's team ERA was 1.76. If the Yankees continue to struggle offensively, can they sustain this sort of outstanding pitching in the next round? Pitching like this in one round is impressive, and it offers the promise of further postseason success. There are no guarantees, other than nothing guarantees postseason success like terrific pitching.

Girardi, meanwhile, was managing while attempting to deal with the death of his father. It is natural in these situations for people to become withdrawn, distant, more passive than usual. Girardi, on the other hand, seemed to become more assertive as manager, and more outspoken at the same time.

He made the bold decision that allowed the Yankees to win Game 3, pinch-hitting Raul Ibanez in the ninth for a slumping Alex Rodriguez. Ibanez hit a tying home run, then encored with a game-winning blast in the 12th.

On Friday, for the series finale, Girardi lifted Rodriguez entirely, replacing him in the starting lineup with Eric Chavez at third base. Chavez didn't hit in Game 5, either, but removing Rodriguez still was a decisive move. It sent a message to Girardi's players that the skipper would do whatever he thought was necessary in order for this team to win, regardless of whose toes were stepped upon in the process.

Girardi is often cautious, perhaps overly cautious in his public pronouncements. Not so in this case. Questioned persistently about creating potential difficulties in his future relationship with A-Rod, the manager finally responded in this manner:

"The best relationships, the strongest relationships are always relationships that go through some struggles. Relationships just aren't perfect. I mean, you put a husband and wife together where the relationship was just perfect without any struggles, and you're probably not living on this planet.

"So relationships go through that. So I mean, if things have to be, you know, built back up, we can do that. I have had to do that before. So I don't worry about that. I have got to worry about today and we, as an organization and as a group in that room, have to worry about today."

The thing about the "perfect" marital relationship not living on this planet, was genuinely funny, for anybody who has been married and who simultaneously has retained a sense of humor. A point can always be made, even about replacing a one-time superstar third baseman, by referring to marriage in a direct, but humorous way.

And Girardi stayed on a managerial roll Friday night, sticking with Sabathia in a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the eighth, then giving him the chance to finish the game.

"It's his game, because he's our ace," Girardi said.

Sabathia responded just as Girardi hoped and knew he would, and the Yankees had a ticket to the ALCS.

Between the relentless effectiveness of the Yankees' pitching and the willingness of their manager to make necessary but still bold moves, the lack of hitting was overcome and the Yankees prevailed over the Orioles.

This wasn't a great Yankees team in this series, not while hitting. 211. But the pitching and the managing were both good enough to win.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

CC Sabathia