Benched Jacoby Ellsbury's homer won't change Yankees' plan

NEW YORK -- It is hard to believe that the New York Yankees would sign a player for seven years and $153 million, and then sit him on the bench for their most important games.

But that is precisely what the Yankees have been doing with Jacoby Ellsbury. This dates back to last year's wild-card play-in game, when Joe Girardi decided to sit his everyday center fielder simply because he is a left-handed batter, and Dallas Keuchel, a lefty, was starting for the Houston Astros.

Assuming that the first time was the hardest, it has gotten easier and easier for the Yankees to bench Ellsbury, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this season, Girardi developed a habit of sitting either Ellsbury or Brett Gardner, his everyday left fielder who also happens to hit from the left side, when a left-hander was starting for the opposition.

Then it happened again nine days ago in a game in Baltimore that Girardi dubbed "the most important game of the season," following two losses that threatened to drop the Yankees out of the AL wild-card race. Once again, Ellsbury, who presumably was signed to play center field everyday for the Yankees, found himself on the bench.

Fast forward to Tuesday and another "must-win" game, this time against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had won big on Monday. With rookie lefthander Julio Urias on the mound, once again Ellsbury was on the bench.

That Ellsbury got off the bench had a lot more to do with an injury to Aaron Judge than any change of heart on the part of the manager. That Ellsbury delivered what turned out to be the winning blow in the Yankees' 3-0 victory, a solo home run in the seventh inning that broke a scoreless tie, is unlikely to change anything going forward.

Ellsbury is the Yankees' everyday center fielder, except when he's not.

And more and more often, it seems as if he is not when the team is about to play a "most important" game.

Ellsbury has not been the player the Yankees thought they were getting when they signed him before the 2014 season. He is batting .266 overall as a Yankee, .270 this season, and has only 78 stolen bases in three seasons, and none since Aug. 21. But he is certainly still this team's best option in center field and at the top of their lineup, and one they are financially committed to for four more seasons.

It was an interesting little twist to this important win that the two biggest hits -- Ellsbury's home run and another homer that immediately followed by Didi Gregorius -- came from two players who were not in the starting lineup. Gregorius was out because of a rib injury suffered in a game Sunday, and Ellsbury was only in because Judge strained an oblique in the fourth inning Tuesday night.

But while there is no doubt that the Yankees are committed to Gregorius as their everyday shortstop, there is increasing evidence that they are less committed to Ellsbury, despite an onerous contract that will keep him on the Yankees' payroll past his 37th birthday in 2020. (There is also a $21 million team option for 2021, but let's not get silly here). How else to explain that Aaron Hicks, who is batting .213, has started 19 games in center field this season?

Ellsbury and Girardi maintain there is no dispute between manager and player over this arrangement, not even when Girardi benched Ellsbury for the Yankees' first playoff game since 2012 last October.

"There is no tension between us," Girardi said. "Would I like to run him out there 162 games? Absolutely. But that's not the world we live and that's not the day and age we're in, and every once in a while you've got to give a guy a day."

No dispute there. Players do need days off, and Ellsbury has in fact started one more game than Gardner and two more than Chase Headley, the everyday third baseman. It's the days Girardi chooses not to play him that make you scratch your head and wonder just exactly where Ellsbury sits on the manager's personal favorites list.

Ellsbury, who is incredibly cautious in clubhouse interviews, did his best to skirt addressing the issue directly. Asked how he felt to once again not be in the starting lineup for a game his manager designated as "big," Ellsbury said, "They're all big games. I play every single day. I played today. I just come prepared every day to play."

True, but he might not have played had Judge not strained his right oblique swinging and missing at a Urias changeup. And Ellsbury played down the fact that his home run, which came on the ninth pitch of an epic battle with Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling that began with him falling into an 0-2 hole, sent any sort of message to the man who makes out the lineup card.

"I just tried to put a quality at-bat together, that was my approach," Ellsbury said. "Not really do anything special, just go up there, have a good plan, a good approach. He ended up hanging a curveball in a good spot for me."

Ellsbury and Girardi agreed that this day off, which turned out to be a mere four innings off, had been planned as far back as last Friday.

"Even with that, I knew I'd probably at some point come in the game," Ellsbury said. "Obviously, you want to play every single day, but with that, sometimes a few innings off will make you better for the rest of the way. Ultimately, as a competitor you never want to come out of the lineup, but you realize sometimes that it's to the benefit of the team and you to have a few innings off."

The home runs by Ellsbury and Gregorius, plus a solo shot by Gary Sanchez in the eighth, kept the Yankees two games back in the wild-card chase, tied with Detroit behind Toronto and Baltimore. The Yankees face the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw in Wednesday's series finale and then travel to Boston for a key four-game series. Girardi said that despite the expectation the Red Sox will start three left-handers, Ellsbury is likely to play in all of those games.

"I'd love to be able to run him out there every day," Girardi said.

Except, perhaps, when the game is truly big.

Judge out for a while? Judge will have an MRI on his strained oblique Wednesday, and Girardi did not sound especially optimistic the powerful 6-foot-7 rookie would play again anytime soon. Asked if Judge could be finished for the season, Girardi said, "It's possible. We won't see him for while."

Girardi said that, for now, Rob Refsnyder would be the regular right fielder and that Tyler Austin could see some time there, too. Hicks, who has been out with hamstring strain, could rejoin the Yankees next week, and there is the possibility that an outfielder -- Mason Williams and Clint Frazier are the main candidates -- could be brought up from Triple-A Scranton.