NEW YORK -- The binder sat in nearly the same spot in Joe Girardi's office before two games of the American League Division Series, its scouting reports meticulously separated for each opposing player, with a large red tab indicating the divide between pitchers and hitters.

It hadn't appeared to have moved more than a few inches, but the slim smile coming from the man behind the desk indicated that book had already been dissected and disseminated. Girardi's fanatical preparation remains a constant, but the last three years have evolved the Yankees' manager in other ways.

"Has it changed me? Yes," Girardi said. "I've had a lot more experiences, and I've had to learn how to deal with certain situations. I think you grow as a person when you go through difficult times and good times, experiences that I'd never been through. I think I've grown a lot."

Girardi came into the job knowing that the comparisons to his predecessor would be endless and inevitable. Having watched from the perspective of both a Yankees player and later as a coach, Joe Torre's shadow would be a big one to step into.

But yet, as Girardi heads into the final months of his three-year deal with the Yankees, with his future beyond this season still a topic to be addressed, he is eight victories away from duplicating what Torre achieved in his first three years -- two World Series victories.

"He's amazing, man. I think he's more than a manager -- he's a friend to a lot of these guys in here," said Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher, in his second year with Girardi. "For the first time in my career, I've had a manager who has the players' backs, the players' best interests.

"He doesn't really worry about anything other than wins and losses. To have that guy in your corner is a tremendous thing. He's done wonderful things for this organization when he played, and he's continuing to do it as a manager as well."

Girardi said that he considers Torre a mentor, and he was pleased to hear his voice last November, congratulating him on the title. But more useful was Torre's advice before 2008, saying that if he was going to take the Yankees job -- and do it right -- Girardi would need to step into the position and do it on his own terms.

"There were strong bonds there, and there are still strong bonds there between Joe and the guys who played for Joe," Girardi said this year. "And that's great, that's the way it should be. But what you realize is that you can't replace that bond. You've got to form a different bond."

And so he has. Injuries shredded the script the Yankees wanted to write in 2008, closing out the old Yankee Stadium by missing the playoffs in Girardi's first season at the helm, but moving across the street allowed Girardi to deeper embed his fingerprints upon the roster's DNA.

"I think you learn how to deal with things that you maybe never thought that you'd have to deal with," Girardi said. "I've had situations that have come up that, if you would have asked me in 2006 -- before I ever managed a game -- would I have to deal with that? I would say I wouldn't. But it happens."

A seemingly more comfortable Girardi greeted the Yankees that spring, and the entrances of big-ticket acquisitions CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira fit quickly with the "old guard" roster fixtures. The Yankees went on to win their first World Series since 2000, and Girardi's cache in the clubhouse increased.

"For the most part, he lets his guys play," said outfielder Brett Gardner. "We've got a pretty veteran group of guys in here, guys that have been around a long time and done this for a while, played in a lot of postseason games. I know that he realizes that as a manager, and we kind of follow their lead."

That trust is an important component for Girardi, who delegates often to his coaching staff, allowing pitching coach Dave Eiland and hitting coach Kevin Long to proceed uninterrupted in their duties.

When Long wanted to revamp outfielder Curtis Granderson's swing during a mid-August series in Texas, Girardi agreed, even though it is rather unorthodox to do so with a starting player in the middle of a pennant race. Long's word was good enough for Girardi, and Granderson -- not to mention the team -- have been better for it.

"I think at this level, you've got to be able to trust your guys to let them go out there and allow them to do the things they're capable of," Granderson said. "Especially here at a facility like Yankee Stadium, when you have everything available to you."

"You've got video, you've got the cages, you've got the strength room -- just great amenities. You just trust that we're doing our work and we're able to go ahead and transform it when it's time to play on the field."

And so far, the recipe has worked, leading the Yankees into the AL Championship Series. But it hasn't been completely smooth. Girardi took a fair amount of heat during the division race for the use of his roster and bristled at the criticism, at times launching into impassioned defenses of what he perceived as an ongoing misconception with "legs of its own."

"People are going to have their own opinions about what we were doing," Girardi said. "I live in the clubhouse and I know what we were trying to do. We were trying to get home-field advantage, and it didn't work out. I see the guys and I get the medical reports. I know the guys that are banged up. Those are the things I have to deal with."

As are the less pleasant tasks of player management. Before the ALDS, Girardi had to swallow hard and inform A.J. Burnett that his services weren't needed as a starter. Even more difficult was telling Javier Vazquez, who won 15 games last year for the Braves, that he hadn't pitched well enough to appear on the playoff roster.

"It is not easy because you are dealing with human beings, dealing with men, people who have worked extremely hard through the course of the season for you," Girardi said. "They are tough decisions that you have to make."

It is all part of the balancing act required for operating in New York. No matter how this rush toward a 28th World Series title finishes, Girardi's transitions over the last three years have been worthy of praise, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

"I know he doesn't get enough credit for the way he runs a ballclub in a market like this, as tough as it is," Gardenhire said. "Joe and his staff do fantastic jobs here. He's ready, he's got his team very prepared.

"It's not like they're robots out there. They pay attention to the game. You're also talking about some of the best players in the game. That's a credit to Joe and his staff, because they listen to him."