Last night's divisional series playoff game between the Yankees and the Twins has to be one of the most perplexing, vexing, emotional and ultimately controversial games this writer has ever watched. In the end, the Twins lost because Nathan couldn't get the job done, the umpires couldn't get the job done and the Yankees don't lose when given eleven chances to beat you.
Much like the Detroit-Minnesota thriller that put the Twins into the post season, it all boiled down to the home team having the last at bat to win the game. You can talk about the fans and familiarity being the biggest advantage for the home team, but the real advantage is having that last at bat. Once the game gets down to the wire, if the home team scores, it's over. So you can talk about the Yankee Stadium short porch or the Twins loud crowd in the Metrodome all you want. The Twins-Tigers game and the Twins-Yankees game were both thrilling and emotional, but both were over because of the biggest advantage a home team has.
But what a game though. Nick Blackburn, who the awful TBS announcers kept describing as a wonderful pitcher despite the back to back 11-11 seasons and a 22-24 lifetime record, combined with Mahay, Rauch and Guerrier to totally stifle the bats of the Yankees. The only ding off of those gentlemen were a double by Jeter followed by a two-out single by a suddenly post-season clutch Alex Rodriguez. Meanwhile, the Yankees' other millionaire pitcher, A. J. Burnett, kept playing with the blasting cap of dynamite for six scary innings. Burnett was great for the first two batters of each inning. But then would start getting cute and would walk a guy or hit two or walk two more. Despite Burnett's adventures, the Twins scored only once off of him. They almost scored twice except for a stroke of bad luck or bad base running, depending on how you look at it.
It was the top of the fourth inning and Burnett easily got the first two batters on a strike out and a foul out. Then, typically, Burnett started to get goosey. First he hit Delmon Young. Then he hit Carlos Gomez. It's a good thing Molina was behind the plate instead of Posada, eh? Tolbert then hit a single to right and Swisher, a player who seems both brilliant at times and helpless at others, thought about throwing home, but instead threw to second (it appeared that Jeter helped that decision by asking for the throw). Gomez, one of the fastest men in baseball had rounded second with thoughts of going to third when he picked up the third base coach who gave him the "GO BACK!" sign. Gomez tried to put on the brakes, but instead folded like a rusty beach chair and sprawled on the ground in no man's land. Jeter got the throw and tagged out the stunned Gomez before Young (who was hustling) got to home plate. The run didn't count and the Twins lost a golden opportunity.
But the Twins didn't lose their opportunity against Phil Hughes in top of the eighth. Hughes pulled his best Burnett impression and easily got the first two batters. Then he got cute with Carlos Gomez and walked him after having a 1-2 count. The Fan could be heard screaming at the television (PUT HIM AWAY STUPID!). But he got cute instead. The next batter was Nick Punto. Punto is one of the worst offensive players in the major leagues. He makes the Marlins' Bonafacio look like Albert Pujols. He had a .621 OPS this season, right near his career mark. But he is one of those "ball players" the TBS announcers keep talking about.
Hughes started Punto with a diet of fastballs. Punto swung at them like a man trying to ward off mosquitoes. Although he managed to foul a few off, you could tell that there was no way Nick Punto was going to be able to put any kind of Hughes fastball in play. So what does Hughes do? He throws him a curve. Base hit, run scored. 2-1. This has been happening all series with Punto. The Yankee pitchers are treating him with so much respect it's silly. He's walked four times in the two games.
So anyway, it's 2-1 and the Yankees go to Rivera, who probably saved this game without getting a save. Rivera did give up a hit to Denard Span that made it 3-1. But then he made Orlando Cabrera (who acts like he is amped on meth or something most of the time) look silly with a few cutters and ended the threat.
After another weak inning for the Yankees in the bottom of the eighth, Rivera shut down the Twins in the top of the ninth including making the AL MVP, Joe Mauer look sick on some nasty cutters. Without Rivera, the dramatics that followed would never have happened.
Then Joe Nathan came into the game. Twins' fans might remember that Nathan, one of the best closers in baseball, has not fared well in the post season. And the Fan could tell why. Nathan looked about as nervous on the mound as any player has ever looked in a professional sporting event. He was sweating. He was swatting his glove on his face and his head. He was twitching and snorting like a horse. He simply looked scared to death.
Nathan's first two tasks were Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Yeah, those guys are pretty good. But instead of attacking them aggressively, which is what Rivera does, Nathan pitched like a squirrel trying to out-juke an oncoming car. With Teixeira, he threw a couple of breaking balls and got behind in the count. When Nathan finally did throw a fastball, he left it in the heart of the plate and Teixeira mashed it to right. Nathan did the same thing to A-Rod. A few weak breaking balls and A-Rod had the count in his favor. He could sit dead red, and red was what he got. Rodriguez didn't miss it and pounded the ball out into the night. Game tied. Nathan somehow managed to survive the next three outs and the game went into extra innings.
The Yankees had a threat in the bottom of the tenth. Nathan was still in there and shattered Posada's bat, but Posada still found a way to get that pitch to bloop into the outfield for a hit. Brent (or is it Brett?) Gardner went in to run for Posada and promptly stole second. Apparently, Nathan hasn't successfully stopped a runner from stealing since the Clinton administration. The Twins, still concerned about Gardner going to third, called a pickoff play at second. Nathan whirled, but not far enough (the equivalent of an olympic diver not rotating his somersault enough) and threw the ball forty feet wide of second. Gardner crashed into Cabrera going back to the bag and then looked stunned for a minute. Then he headed for third but stumbled first. The centerfielder picked up the ball when Gardner was only a few feet off second and the Yankees' fans around the world thought, "Crap." Even the replay of Jeter watching the whole thing saw Jeter's face as he was inwardly saying, "Crap." But somehow Gardner beat the throw to third. It wasn't even close. Nathan then walked Jeter intentionally to set up a double play and face Damon.
Except, they brought the infield in, which was weird. You would have thought the first and third basemen would be in and the middle infielders would be in double-play depth. But they were all in. Damon came up and everyone everywhere was probably thinking the game was going to be over. All Damon needed to do was hit a fly ball against Mijares (who relieved Nathan) and the game was over. But Damon hit a smash line drive right at Cabrera at shortstop. Who the heck knows what Gardner was thinking as he ran on contact. He may have been instructed to do so or he may have just been stupid. Either way, it became an easy double-play for the Twins. Momentum back to the Twins.
And so the Twins come up in the top of the 11th. With Joe Mauer leading off and Damaso Marte in to pitch. Marte has no business being on the post season roster. None. Mauer used his patented inside out swing to send the ball to left. Melky Cabrera chased after it and it hit off his glove and landed two feet inside the foul line. Cuzzi, the umpire, whose only job in this game is to figure out if a ball in left field is fair or foul, then made one of the worst umpiring calls in the history of post season play and called the ball foul. What!? Huh!? Are you kidding!? What a horrible call! Somebody tell the Fan why baseball doesn't use replay?
But baseball won't use replay so Mauer has to settle for a single on the next pitch. Kubel, who has struggled this series, then hit a single to right. Mauer stopped at second. Remember that he should now be on third. The Yankees then realized their Marte decision was a mistake and brought in Robertson. He promptly delivered a single to Cuddyer. Mauer stops at third (he would have scored at this point if he was given the double). Why the Twins chose to run the bases so conservatively this inning is a bit baffling. But they station-to-stationed it.
The next guy up was Delmon Young who hit a screaming liner right at Teixeira. Bad luck, but unlike Gardner, the Twins didn't get doubled up on the play. Gomez then hit into a fielder's choice with Mauer out at home. Harris then flew out weakly to end the inning. Granted, Cuzzi really blew that call, but how can the Twins load the bases with no outs and not score?
Predictably, Teixeira led off the bottom of the eleventh with a homer (a wall-scraper as he called it) and the Yankees won the game. What a see-saw ride that was. What a game. What bad umpiring (the home plate umpire didn't know a strike from a ball the entire game either). What a bad clutch performance by the Twins. What great clutch performances by the Yankees (other than the Gardner gaffe).
These Yankees are different this year than the past few years. They have excitement. They pull hard for each other. They have fun. They are playing like kids. It looks a lot like the '04 Red Sox. The Twins? They need a miracle.