Joe Girardi is the Yankees' real MVP

— -- NEW YORK -- Yankees manager Joe Girardi had an agitated pregame exchange with reporters Friday night. But by Sunday's series finale against the Red Sox he was back to normal -- which is to say, not drawing anymore attention to how he's resigned to the idea that if he keeps having to make bricks out of straw with the cold-hitting lineups and starting pitching he has to roll out, maybe someone will notice he actually does think a great deal about what he does. Like, all the time. OK? And he's actually pretty good at it, if he does say so himself. No, really.

That was Girardi's not-so-hidden point Friday when he launched into a long and irritable monologue about why he didn't skip Vidal Nuno in the Yanks' rotation with the Red Sox in town, before the Yanks went out that night and -- what do you know? -- won 6-0 anyway. But Sunday night's game at the Stadium was an even more vivid example of just how resourceful Girardi has had to be this season just to keep the Yankees afloat.

When Girardi felt the momentum turning in this game that the Yankees began by falling behind 4-0 early on, he made an aggressive decision to try to not to squander what spark of a chance they did create by removing starter Chase Whitley after Whitley walked the first batter he faced in the fifth. And things went completely ka-boom for the Yankees from there.

The fact that Girardi's decision backfired after they drew within 4-3 wasn't the point. That happens. The point was that he felt the need to make that kind of aggressive personal imprint on the game at all. Because it speaks volumes about his view of his club.

For all the needling Girardi takes about being Joey Binders, the Robo Manager with an overreliance on spreadsheets, the truth is very little about this Yankees team is reliable or predictable. And that puts more pressure on Girardi, the ultimate by-the-book skipper, to manage this team by feel and smoke-and-mirrors than he has ever had in his tenure here.

Some nights, it's as if Girardi himself has to be the Yankees' most valuable person. And when he, too, has an unlucky or off-night, this team of his really doesn't look like it has much chance to scratch out a win.

If anything, you wonder how the heck the Yanks even have the 41-39 record they do after losing to the Red Sox 8-5 Sunday to drop two out of three in this series to Boston, who rolled into town having lost six of nine.

Girardi isn't as homespun or good with an anecdote as some other managers. He doesn't prattle on about keeping an eye on the heartbeat of the game, like his predecessor Joe Torre did. And a lot of fans find him a hard man to warm up to because of all that.

But Girardi deserves credit for how good he has been at keeping the Yankees merely above .500. That's what that Friday's snit was about. His managing of his pitching staff and his bullpen may be his greatest strength, and he didn't like being second-guessed over and over about that.

He's also smartly insistent on giving his older stars days off, despite the pressure to win and the way the Yanks' offense habitually underperforms.

And the reason that the Yanks are still in this AL East race, despite their ups and downs, is because the one bit of luck they have had: The rest of the division has played almost as underwhelmingly as they have, or worse.

"Yeah, well, we're all going through our issues, there's no doubt about it," Girardi agreed. "So as I've said, it's probably going to come down to the end, who handles the injuries the best. Obviously, we need to play better. I'm sure every club in our division says that at this point. We need to play better. We're right in the thick of it."

Like Girardi, this Yankees team at least has some fight.

Too bad for them, they also have too many hitters who are hitting like Girardi did once upon a time. Five of the eight everyday players he started Sunday were hitting .243 or lower. When he looks down his bench, four of the five players who sat last night are hitting .237 or below. (No wonder the Yanks took a chance by sending Carlos Beltran home in the sixth, only to see him get thrown out. "Just trying to get another run closer," Girardi shrugged.)

The Yanks are still missing three-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation until CC Sabathia returns from his knee injury. And that's supposed to happen shortly after the All-Star Game. But general manager Brian Cashman better hurry up and make the trade(s) he keeps saying he wants to make. Because Ivan Nova isn't coming back, and Michael Pineda's injured shoulder just suffered another setback, and Girardi didn't sound all that convincing when asked directly if the Yanks are asking too much of young Whitley, David Phelps and Nuno, who has looked overmatched most of the time.

"No, I don't think so," Girardi said.

In his heart he knows that kind of starting rotation makes it hard enough to win. Whitley (3-2) was trying to prove that his first six games with the Yanks indicated the kind of pitcher he is rather than his last start, when he was rocked by Toronto. But then he went out and coughed up an RBI single to Stephen Drew, who began the night hitting .125. Then he served up a towering three-run homer to David Ortiz.

"He made some mistakes in the middle," Girardi said, "and they hit it."

And still, when Derek Jeter's refusal to give in against Red Sox starter John Lackey resulted in an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with Jeter slapping an RBI single to left that score Ichiro Suzuki in the third inning, the Yanks got some life. When Mark Teixeira and Beltran followed the very next inning with booming back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the fourth, making it a one-run game, Girardi had seen enough of Whitley when Whitley walked Jackie Bradley Jr., the Sox's No. 9 batter, to start the fifth.

Girardi decided to go get the last 15 outs of this game with his bullpen, the most trustworthy part of his team.

"Yep," Girardi said.

It just didn't work out. Shawn Kelley didn't retire any of the hitters he faced, walking two of them. "Don't know [why] -- he's had success off these guys," Girardi shrugged.

Girardi pulled every string he could.

But instead of managing to get something going, the Yanks were just going down.