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Once again, Jacoby Ellsbury sits in a 'must-win' game

The Yankees are paying Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million over seven years, but he's sitting more often than not against left-handed starters. Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- It has been this way all season: When a left-hander starts for the opposing team, Joe Girardi benches one of his two left-handed hitting starting outfielders, either Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury.

More often than not, it has been Ellsbury.

Now, with the games dwindling -- the New York Yankees have 19 games left to play -- and the chances of making the playoffs decreasing with each loss, it would stand to reason that Girardi might relax that rule, since ostensibly, Gardner in left and Ellsbury in center is the Yankees' best outfield alignment both offensively and defensively. Not to mention that the Yankees are hardly paying Ellsbury $153 million over seven years not to use him in their most important games. (Oh yeah, Ellsbury was on the bench for last year's one and only playoff game, against the Houston Astros and their Cy Young lefty, Dallas Keuchel.)

If nothing else, it's bad optics, as Sandy Alderson might say. It also gives the Yankees an outfield made up of two rookies -- Rob Refsnyder is in left tonight, Aaron Judge in right. We all saw how well that worked out in Monday night's 8-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Girardi defended his lineup choice for tonight's game -- rookie left-hander Julio Urias (5-2, 3.69) is starting for the Dodgers -- by saying that Ellsbury "needed a day" after playing in 10 of 11 games this month.

But the fact is, Gardner has played even more than Ellsbury recently. He too has started 10 of the 11 games in September but last had a day off on Aug. 23, as opposed to Ellsbury's Aug. 28, and it seems obvious that when it comes to a big situation, Girardi has more trust in Gardner than he does in Ellsbury.

Asked if he thought the Yankees' "best lineup" included both Gardner and Ellsbury, the manager said "I think so," before adding, "Against left-handers, I don't know." Although Ellsbury has better career numbers than Gardner against left-handers (.280 with a .725 OPS as opposed to .260 and .711), this season, Gardner has batted .265 against lefties and Ellsbury .247. Refsnyder, a right-handed hitter, has batted .288 vs. lefties this season but has yet to hit a home run against any type of pitching.

Still, Girardi said he did not consider playing Ellsbury tonight, regardless of the importance of the game.

"You have to keep these guys fresh," Girardi said, emphasizing that Ellsbury did not ask for the night off. "And the one thing that we’ve been doing here is we start a rotation with our outfielders. And I’m not going to change it, in a sense, just because one game’s more important than the other. Tomorrow’s going to be more important than today, and (Ellsbury's) going to be in there tomorrow, and that’s the way it goes. I understand how people raise an eyebrow, but you also have to -- I have to deal with how they’re doing physically, you don’t."

Asked his opinion of how Ellsbury has performed overall this season, Girardi said, "I think it’s been pretty good. I think he’s been good in August and September. He’s been really good. He’s had a good homestand for us. And obviously he’s really important to our team. I don’t think any of us thought he was going to be a 30 home run guy every year, but he’s played really well as of late."

Ellsbury is batting .268, which would be fourth-highest in tonight's lineup, and his on-base percentage is .331, no better than fifth-best behind Gary Sanchez, Gardner, Refsnyder and Ronald Torreyes. He leads the team in stolen bases with 18, but also leads in being caught stealing (eight) and has not stolen a base since Aug. 21.

Girardi said it was possible Ellsbury would start all four games in Boston against the Red Sox this weekend, even though it is likely Boston will start three lefties.

"I think each game gets probably a little more important from here," he said. "Especially with where we are. Tonight is a really important game. We put together a good streak, and you don’t want to have a streak where you lose three games in a row."

But that is the prospect the Yankees are facing tonight, and they are facing it without their $153 million starting center fielder in the lineup.