Tag Archives: New York Yankees

Looking for a Turning Point: Twins @ Yankees

Among baseball matchups, Twins-Yankees contests have moved deep into hyperbolic territory. Obviously, they’re not keen regional rivals, but over the last decade these teams play to settle one single question: Under what planetary alignment could the Twins possibly beat the Yankees?

The Yankees win when it counts. In four Division Series against the New York, Minnesota’s record is 1-3 (2003), 1-3 (2004), 0-3 (2009), and 0-3 (2010). A decade of making noise in the AL Central, only to have the Yankees (and in 2002 and 2006, the Angels and As) shut you up.

The postseason deflatings have been gruesome, but they simply carry on the rich regular season tradition of pure Yankee dominance. Before the four-game series that started this Monday, the Twins had played 73 regular season games against the Yankees since 2002. The Twins have won 20 of them, a statistically distressing 27% success rate.

And it’s anomalous. In that same span, the Twins have suffered against the Blue Jays, but only to a 30-41 record. The Yankees have clobbered the Royals nearly as well—a 68% beatdown pace—but KC lost to everyone in that decade. Something just happens when hallowed pinstripe meets Midwestern pinstripe.

Add in the bonus oddity that Yankee Stadium, old or new, is especially well suited to the hitting skills of the Twins’ predominantly lefty lineup and you are left wondering why an interlocked N and Y have such a definitively mesmerizing effect on the Twins. They fare no better at home, whether in the Metrodome where they used to enjoy a decisive home field advantage against all teams not from the Bronx, or in new Target Field.

For a decade, the Twins’ sole project has been to offer themselves up for the Yankees to devour.

So when I settled in for this series, played in New York, I began with a simple, feeble hope: just win one of the four games to shake off at least a little of the feeling of doom. The Twins 2012 season is off to a predictably lousy start—2-7, dead last in the division, with the only bright spot confined to a Justin Morneau homer that might (might!) signal that his concussion symptoms have truly started to dissipate. The Yankees are 5-4, tied atop the AL East with Baltimore and Toronto.

Even staunch Twins fans can’t expect much from the team this year. They’ve brought in Josh Willingham to try to make up for the power lost with the exodus of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. The rotation is rickety, and now Scott Baker will be lost to Tommy John rehab for the year, leaving behind Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins made a madcap, high-risk pick of closer free agent Joel Zumaya, who didn’t make it past spring training before suffering the type of injury that every other general manager in baseball adequately foresaw. Sift the roster however you like—there’s little there but some hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau might hit a little and Danny Valencia can finally win manager Ron Gardenhire’s love with some handy hitting.

The Yankees, on the other hand, replace All-Star with All-Star whenever an injury or a more favorable pitching matchup requires. However, for all the glory in their stat lines, it’s important to note that it’s an aging hitting lineup: catcher Russell Martin is the youngest of the offense at 29. They’re tall, they’re trim, they’re well-conditioned and cared for, but trying to wring a little more out of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones starts to look a little like a rich man’s a creepy kind of science experiment.

The pitching staff has a bloom of youth in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, but they’re joined by oldsters CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda, hope of the future, is nursing his shoulder back to health. As reluctant as they are to shed any bit of the luster that was Yankee glory in the 90s, Jorge Posada has retired and Andy Pettitte is standing by in the minors, while Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter continue to merit spots on the roster.

Jeter is off to a hot start this season, his perfect career evolving into a perfect and long one. So, for game one, Carl Pavano versus Freddy Garcia, my lowered expectations were as follows: win one game of the four, and maybe get Derek Jeter out a couple times.

Yes, well, that will not be possible. The Twins start strong, scoring 2 in the first, but if you really want to feel gloomy, you can remind yourself that the Twins started with the lead for so many of the games they lost to the Yankees that it’s almost an eerie prediction of failure. Still, a double from Mauer and a single from Morneau, plus RBIs from Willingham and Doumit make it feel like the turning point might at last be at hand.

But in the bottom of the first, Jeter needs only two pitches from Pavano to find the one he’d like to launch to his right field homer zone. It’s the standard punch in the gut, but perhaps Pavano can reinflate himself? Not quickly enough. Curtis Granderson also likes the look of the second pitch he sees and whips his bat around to park it a little higher in the same right field porch.

Two lead off homers and this is starting to look like a classic Yankee massacre. Classic, as in Why did you bother to try to play against us? The frail little tie lasts a few minutes, but Mark Teixeira drives in Alex Rodriguez to make it 3-2. The entire universe settles: Yankees ahead, Twins paralyzed.

I could dream about a turning point, but there’s a grim sameness now. The good news is that Pavano regains every speck of his composure after that insta-collapse first inning. He becomes efficient, focused, and deals a few crisp strikeouts while leaning on a double play to solve the third.

Garcia, meanwhile, also got said mojo back and began dispatching Twins at a brisk clip until the fifth, when the Twins retook the lead on a double from Alexi Casilla, a single from Jamey Carroll, and a double from Mauer. It looked like more was building: with Mauer on second, up comes Willingham, the Twins best hitter at the moment. It’s an ideal scoring opportunity, but Willingham settles for a fly out.

The Yankees were done for the night; Pavano made it through seven without the slightest flashback to his first inning woes. But the Twins notched a few more runs, the most encouraging of which was Morneau’s lofty solo homer to deep center. Final score: 7-3. Essence of a turning point.

Tuesday’s game pits Liriano against Sabathia. Liriano has already had two miserable starts, but I’m not the only observer who can’t shake memories of the brilliance of his first full season, in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an even 1.00 WHIP. There have been surgeries, injuries, lost seasons, stumbles, and just about every disappointment you can name, but the image of 2006 persists. I watch because there’s always this wild chance Liriano will bloom again.

Wait a minute—flowers don’t do that. Baseball is so good at lodging stories about players in our heads, but I’ve got to let the real evidence chip away at my idealized Dominican lefthander. Well, the Yankees are happy to slam me back to earth.

Liriano has a shaky first but escapes after allowing a double and a walk. The Twins score in the second, with Willingham keeping his 11-game hitting streak going with a homer off a pitch Sabathia hangs. It’s a puny lead, but I’m no longer willing to write it off as another Twins folly. Last night they not only held on, they got better as the game progressed.

But Liriano is not comfortable on the mound tonight. A feeling of pure Twins futility returns, and it’s such a familiar feeling. It’s clear Liriano no longer has the velocity, location, or the requisite pride in his calling. In fact, pitching may no longer be his calling. Time and injuries have turned a 95-mph fastball into a 91-mph not-fooling-anyone pitch. One only wants Liriano lifted as the hits and runs keep clunking over on the odometer. Rick Anderson sedately visits the mound with the same implacable expression—largely constructed from a motionless salt and pepper mustache—and Liriano stays in, not least because the Twins have little else in the bullpen to offer up to the hungry Yankees.

The Twins tick off two more runs, but the Yankees go on to take four more off Liriano, and three from Minnesota’s motley relief staff. Final score: 8-3 Yankees, and the turning point seems to have turned back to the inexorable Yankees.

Yet there is a bright spot. If Yankee mystique has overwhelmed the Twins for ten years, the new players in the lineup seem a tad less sensitive to the virus. There’s that little sleight of hand in a lineup like the Twins’, where low expectations allow for surprises. Tonight Clete Thomas, Jamey Carroll, and Alexi Casilla all get hits. These pale before the Yankees’ clobberings—only A-Rod goes hitless, while little-known backup catcher Chris Stewart has two hits and three RBI. The Yankees even win on unlikely sources of hits.

Sabathia has an OK night, with seven Ks and only four hits, though he does give up three earned runs. This is an improvement on his two previous outings this season, but it’s not easy to tell if his season will settle around his career averages or show some real decline. For now, the Yankees sleep calmly with the series split 1-1.

Game 3 features a pitching matchup that no fantasy team is sporting this season: Hideki Kuroda versus Jason Marquis. Kuroda has a rocky first inning, precisely in keeping with the tenor of this series. Denard Span leads off with a hit, Carroll follows right along with a single, and Mauer hits a sweet double to score two. Josh Willingham’s bullet to left is snared by Derek Jeter, but Justin Morneau hits his second happy homer of the series, deep to right center. The inning ends with Twins up 4-0—what better present for Jason Marquis in his Twins debut?

Well, it’s the first inning. It’s a bottomless pit for pitchers in this series, so Marquis proceeds to give up 3 runs and fidget with two on and one out. It looks like a pure and absolute collapse—30 pitches worth—when Alexi Casilla starts a double play that gets the Twins out with the lead intact.

Neither pitcher has much of a grip on things tonight. The big suspense is whether Marquis can survive the fifth inning. With the game at the halfway point and the Twins up 6-4 after a second homer from Morneau in the top of the inning, there’s still no sense yet that momentum has tipped Twinsward. Thanks to a double play that, honestly, appeared not quite swift enough to snare Cano at first, Marquis notches his 15 outs and is done for the night.

The seventh begins to look like more trouble. Jeter leads off with a single against Brian Duensing, who’s given up a leadoff hit in all three innings he’s pitched this season. The bullpen is warming up and the great weight of Yankee destiny is felt again. Teixeira rips one to left and it’s men on first and second, one out. Cano is up, and he’s already turned in an RBI double and solo homer tonight. The Twins slim edge here is the lefty-lefty matchup.

Cano hits a grounder to Casilla, but it becomes a fielder’s choice instead of a double play. Teixiera’s erased, Jeter’s swaying proudly at third, and Cano stands at first. Jared Burton comes in to face Nick Swisher.

If I’m so keen on turning points, I have one now. The series is even, the Twins are ahead in the game, and the Yankees are threatening. Put them away and the 2-run lead may stay safe for a victory. Crumple, and the whole series is lost.

Burton’s first two offerings are balls so far out of deception range they wouldn’t lure a child. I remain convinced this is the critical at-bat of the game, but it’s plainly not going to be one of those heroic showdowns of might against might. Swisher fouls one off. Burton produces a nifty changeup for a swinging strike and now I lean forward in anticipation. Something is materializing here.

Swisher fouls off another. It’s 2-2, 2 on, 2 out, with a 2-run lead—as twoish as it gets. Baseball often suspends itself on twos; three is always the final note, the last beat, the one you can almost hear before it falls.

Another foul back, another delay in reaching whatever conclusion this confrontation has to offer. It feels like the ninth inning to me.

Burton hurls a splitter and earns a swinging strike. That’s it!

If this is the turning point, if one could actually see a turning point as it happens, it has unspooled itself slowly over a long inning, with two pitchers struggling slowly. It will take time to prove whether anything turned or not, but I think I feel a few atoms realigning.

Matt Capps does the honors in the ninth. With one out, Jeter munches through 10 pitches to achieve his desired, god-like result: a solo homer that cuts the lead in two and opens the door for further Yankee settling of accounts. Capps dispatches Granderson and Teixeira, though, and the Twins lead the series 2-1. Final score: 7-6.

By game 4, irrational hopes sprout up. The Twins could take home quite a pretty scrapbook here if they pulled off a decisive 3-1 series win. It will be up to Anthony Swarzak, the best hope in the Twins’ depleted rotation, who faces Phil Hughes.

Once again, the first inning is a banquet. The Twins score 4, the Yankees 3. There’s something so prompt about these Yankee responses to an opponent’s runs—it feels like they’re staying on top of their e-mail. In this case, Granderson starts off with a home run, as if cluttering the bases with singles would just take too long. He has a whippy swing, and it looks almost like the bat head is spinning away from him, that he’s barely harnessing the centrifugal force as he lunges out to the ball. His homers are so brisk they feel inevitable.

The Twins try their own version of answering back in the second, and this time it’s Mauer, with one on, hitting the ball deep to left. This is the spot where he can hit opposite field homers; in his 2009 overachiever season, even Yankee Stadium wasn’t safe. This time, the ball lands in Ibanez’s glove with plenty of warning track to spare.

Mind you, the Twins are still ahead in the second, but now it’s time for Derek Jeter to flick his wand and send in the tying run. Then Granderson hits his second home run in a 40-minute span to push the Yankees ahead.

To unravel how they can make such things come true, we need to look at what constitutes the bottom of their order. Swarzak was not able to retire Eduardo Nunez, playing second base tonight to give Cano a DH turn. New York has strength wedged against strength.

By the fourth, the Yankees are in cruise control. The Twins have yanked Swarzak and are trying on Jeff Gray in middle relief. After one out, when Granderson steps up, it simply doesn’t seem necessary for him to keep hitting. But there is a tuning fork he can hear especially perfectly today—his swing is in some special Yankee ballpark harmony. Third home run of the night.

Phil Hughes never exactly overwhelms, but he keeps the Twins at bay. Hughes looks a bit like Beetle Bailey on the mound. His has is not pulled especially lower than other players’, but with his mouth always half open and the dark shadow of the hat bill making it impossible to read his eyes, there’s a regular schlub’s mild helplessness about him. But hapless GI or not, Hughes has turned the page from his first inning’s troubles.

Hughes even glides past the gnat-like irritation of stout Ryan Doumit getting his first Twins homer, with Morneau on base, bringing the score to 7-6 in the sixth. There it stays for Rivera to make it official with his darting cutter, retiring Carroll, Mauer, and Willingham—seven pitches, three outs, good night.

Splitting the series 2-2 constitutes an improvement for the Twins, but it’s no full bore turning point. And for the Twins to whip themselves into contention in the Central this season would require miracles outside my range of hope. It’s easier to cheer for the odd little accomplishment while understanding that no big dreams can be attached to this team.

The Yankees, meanwhile, impress well past mere payroll. I complain about them, groan about them, suffer their annihilating force—but I must concede their majesty. These guys are good. They’re making the most of a less than stellar rotation; they’re sending up a lineup organized around a sequence of strengths; they’re keeping players healthy. Heck, they’re fine-tuning Granderson’s swing to the point of a 3-for-5, 3 homer night.

There are times the Yankees look like a synthetic collection of talent—fantasy baseball run wild. But when you see them play the game, they do the little and large things, and they do them with each other. Hustling to make plays, advancing runners, keeping their heads in the game. Money makes them impregnable, but talent and desire make them win.

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Charm Bracelet

In the American game show tradition, I’m sure there’s some type of consolation prize for baseball teams who make it to the postseason but don’t win anything. The Twins, for example, might get little charm bracelets. And game 2 of the ALDS could be commemorated by charms for the nice little positive moments that occurred. The nice little moments that didn’t in any way add up to winning what may be the last baseball game played in Target Field this season.

There could be a First Run Scored charm, in memory of Danny Valencia’s sac fly that sent Delmon Young across the plate in the second inning. That should be a shiny little spinning disk, the kind of thing that distracts you for a while until you happen to notice it’s meaningless. For the Twins in this decade, you can put ten of them on the charm bracelet and they’ll dangle and make lots of jangly noise while amounting to nothing.

I guess there should be a Futility charm; maybe it’s an anvil that could drop off the bracelet and maybe bruise your toe. Whatever it looks like, you’ll need to hang your head when looking at it.

But back to the bright side! We need an Unlikely Solo Home Run charm, to denote Orlando Hudson’s bright little blast to left field. It tied the game at two-all in the sixth inning, so the charm should be an insipid smiley face.

And, hey, we need a First Pitch Strike charm, in honor of Carl Pavano’s noble effort and consistent ability to execute the Twins’ pitching approach. Of course, when you throw a lot of strikes, a team like the Yankees might start hitting them. In the fourth, New York tried just that. Curtis Granderson doubled to lead off, and Mark Teixeira smacked a first pitch strike for a single that sent Granderson to third. Next, mighty Alex Rodriguez coiled himself up in his sulky stance and blasted a first pitch sacrifice fly to tie the game. The scoring didn’t end there, but the first pitch pounding did.

Another charm we should have: Holy Joe Mauer, Savior of St. Paul. In tonight’s game, Mauer struck out one less time than he did yesterday, grounded out twice, and got a hopeful-looking leadoff single in the ninth. In the ninth, when we needed three runs to tie and have a chance to head into Yankee Stadium with some of that polite, Minnesota-nice swagger Mauer exudes. Delmon Young would erase Mauer’s lonely hit by grounding into a double play. Joe, you are and remain my hero in every way I can have a baseball hero, but you have been playing like a passionless duffer in this series.

The charm bracelet should have also have a Bad Call charm, in the form of a little umpire’s eyeball. One can actually make a case that the entire game turned on a rather beautiful pitch the umpire neglected to consider a strike. After walking Jorge Posada to start the seventh inning, Pavano seemed to settle back down and laid a lovely trap for Lance Berkman. On a 1-2 count, Pavano carved a pitch just over the inside edge of the plate. It was the best kind of situational pitching, and it should have left a man on first with one out. Instead, the count moved to 2-2 and Berkman launched a deep double to center and scored Posada on Pavano’s next throw: Yankees 3, Twins 2.

I’m a big believer in the human limits of baseball, and I want nothing to do with television replay. I have been impressed time and again by how very good umpires are, and I accept the occasional mistakes they make as the texture on the backdrop of the game. Relying on an umpire’s calls mean granting authority to a powerful, human arbiter. It doesn’t mean every call is accurate, just that the game is played with someone in charge. Accuracy, particularly vaguely scientific accuracy, is overrated.

But back to the seventh inning. Now the Yankees have a man on second, no outs, and a run home. Quite the contrast to the conditions that would follow a correctly called third strike, but that’s baseball. (Yes, I keep muttering that tonight.) After a little bunt single from Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter gets to add still more to his mind-bending heap of postseason stats: an RBI single puts the Yankees up 4-2.

We need a charm for reliever Matt Guerrier’s 1-2-3 eighth inning, but maybe it should be a little cloud for the way his work was overshadowed. It has to symbolize the fact that anything good the Twins do the Yankees can do better. In this instance, consider Andy Pettitte’s 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh. He throttles the Twins, giving them no chance to answer back to the long scoring siege in the top half.

Well, that’s about all the charms I can think of to remember this night. We had such a beautiful season, and such a great ballpark to play in. Fan support, a cohesive team, even an answer—at last—to the dilemma of third base. So maybe there should be a fragment of Target Field limestone on the charm bracelet. That should do it.

I’m uncharacteristically bitter tonight. The Twins are wilting before my eyes, and I have no way to rattle them awake. The psychological aspect of baseball is one reason I love the game, but when I see my beloved team tied in knots by what appears to be abject terror of the Yankees, I am nearing a collapse myself.

There, I got it all out of my system. I can start all over this Saturday. I know, I just know, the Twins can play one game resembling the 94 handsome wins they had this season. They know how. They just have to decide they’re playing the White Sox.

Ten? Ten in a Row?!

So it’s going to be another grueling psychic bruising, is it? The Twins have a little postseason rut that grows deeper each time. They’ve faced the Yankees in four division series this decade, and bowed out meekly with a single win in the first two before offering themselves up to a sweep last time round.

Wait, it gets more gruesome: the Twins have lost ten straight playoff games to the Yankees, and in each one of them they had the early lead. Just as it played out tonight: a 3-0 edge against CC Sabathia disintegrated in the sixth and seventh innings. That lead had both hopeful flags flying for a while—defense and offense. Francisco Liriano masterfully held the Yankees in check, with all his pitches working, a few strikeout gems and 1-2-3 innings, and an especially gritty showing against Mark Texeira (fly out) and Alex Rodriguez (strikeout) with men on base. In turn, the Twins mustered trouble against Sabathia in most every inning. It wasn’t a slew of runs, but they were dispiriting ones: the last was on a passed ball with Orlando Hudson third, who scooted there during Texeira’s ragtag fielding of Joe Mauer’s groundout. It looked like we weren’t going to have another entry in the playoff Book of Doom.

But it’s still quite the bestseller when the Yankees are involved, and we had to scratch in yet another sad chapter. In the sixth, Liriano lost his way on the third trip through the Yankee batting order. The specifics include a nail-biting strikeout of Marcus Thames with two on (we exhale) and some more proof that the Yankees, yes, are that good. Jorge Posada, ahead in the count, deposits a fastball in that little infield slot toward right, the one you can use your bat to poke the ball into if you are an official Wily Veteran. Posada is an accomplished hitter—he knows how to get this particular hit, and with it he pushes the Yankees to within 1 run.

Curtis Granderson has had such trouble with lefties that he probably has founded a support group. I told myself that any lefty could get him out, and there might not be much difference between a manifestly tired Liriano and a fresh but less consistently reliable Jose Mijares.

But that’s why I’m not managing. Oh wait, Ron Gardenhire is, and he seems to have agreed with me. He left Liriano in and Granderson hit a miracle triple to center—a hit unlike any other I’d ever seen him wrench off a left-hander. The Yankees take the lead, 4-3.

It must officially be noted that Granderson is simply not capable of that hit under any conditions other than Postseason Yankee Victory Juggernaut Rules.

In the bottom of the inning, the Twins manage to tie it. But the seventh inning belongs to Mark Teixeira, whose two-run homer off Jesse Crain seemed to ooze Yankee mystique and entitlement. Yes, the Twins could not claw back, and all the happiness of starting this game off just right is lost.

The players, I suspect, don’t actually take it quite as hard as we fans do. Otherwise, how in the world would any of them crawl out of bed tomorrow? No, they must remain resilient, ready to spring right back as if nothing had happened. Because they’ve carried losses around all their lives. This is supposed to be one of the heartening, useful lessons of sport.

Still. How do you keep competing when it appears everything you have to offer is poured down into an abyss that will swallow the best you have? What does it take to keep trying?

Mariano Rivera curls himself down impossibly low, then rises up to whirl another cutter across the plate. Rivera is supposed to be mortal now, toward the end of his career, but the Twins can’t yet find the Deflate Mystique button.

Thursday night, another chance. Promise me this is not going to be a case of new ballpark, same old playoff result.

 

[ALDS game 1] Playoff Chum

If you root around long enough on the web, you can find a few souls willing to imagine the Twins winning one whole game in the ALDS. There are even some freak-out style commentators who give the Twins a chance to overturn the Yankees, but I suspect they’re saying this for the shock value. No one really expects Minnesota to serve as anything more than chum, thrown over the playoff fishing boat transom.

The Yankees are hungry, and have been stoking their appetite all season. They have reached new levels of financial perfection. Their lineup includes the highest-paid player at every position except outfield and second base, and usually by a big margin. They have the best record in baseball, with 103 regular-season wins.

They have a ballpark that favors home run hitting, and many players able to take advantage of it. They have a young manager with something to prove, spending the season wearing  a 27 on his uniform in homage to the 27th World Series Championship this year could include. They have fans who won’t settle for less, and players accustomed to a very intoxicating level of worship.

They. Can’t. Lose.

In game one on Wednesday, Brian Duensing starts for the Twins. We’re all hoping he’s a little too young to know what’s hit him and can survive in the majesty of the new Yankee ballpark. He faces CC Sabathia, one of the prize Yankee acquisitions this year, who has settled in well amidst the hype and hope.

For two innings, both pitchers look calm and in command. The Twins start with a hopeful double from Denard Span, and the Yankees counterpunch with a leadoff single from Derek Jeter, but neither team assembles a threat.

In the third, the Twins are first to score, often a happy little indicator of success. They start with a leadoff single from Nick Punto, who proves his scrappy at-bat intensity even works on the big stage. Span, alas, erases him with a double play, but a little whisper of the chance of getting to Sabathia arises.

The Twins reel off three consecutive hits, from Orlando Cabrera, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer, who gets an RBI and sees Cabrera cross home. Cooking this up with two outs starts to feel very invigorating. Jason Kubel can’t exactly cap it off—he’s at the plate when Sabathia launches a passed ball that allows Mauer to score, but ends up a strike out. It’s Twins 2, Yankees nothing.

If you’re looking for a fairytale, go to sleep right here and forget the rest of the game. But if you want to face facts, watch the Yankee lineup systematically solve Duensing on their second trip through.

Jeter starts the cavalcade with the two-run homer in the bottom of the third, allowing the Twins to lead the game for approximately seven minutes—and I’m including the break between innings. Nick Swisher smashes a double that rumbles along the leftfield fence long enough to score another run in the fourth, and put the Yankees up 3-2.

Things are going well for the Yankee hitters. They’re not precisely eviscerating Duensing yet, but then again, it might be more productive to toy with him. More chum off the boat, please!

The Yankees may no longer even be concerned about winning the game; that problem seems solved already. They’ve seen Sabathia settle in to a productive groove, and shake off at least some of his communication problems with Posada that led to that passed ball. They’ve seen the Twins hitters shoot liners to perfectly placed infielders, or strike out against CC’s sharp cutter. But there is one last small test.

Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the most synthetically perfect player of all time, with his tense jaw, tightly scrubbed face, stare-through-the-pitcher hazel eyes, and perfectly ordered muscles, always turns in immaculate season stats. He hit his quota precisely this year: 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, like punching a clock. But he has not yet distinguished himself in a playoff game. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s quite let down the side in these October events.

There are New York fans who are horrified enough at his artificial perfection to continue to wish him ill, and others who yearn to see him triumph. In the fifth inning, he begins improve his postseason record. He shoots a swift line drive to left with two out, and scores Jeter. An RBI gleams in his crown, at last.

The Yankees would garnish the inning with two more runs off a Hideki Matsui homer, now leading 6-2. As the Twins shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, collecting a meager few hits and no more runs, the Yankees take their feet off the gas. They only score one more run, but it’s another A Rod RBI, just for good measure.

Yankees 7, Twins 2. Not much debate about the better team tonight. The Yankees got 6-2/3 great innings from Sabathia, who struck out 8. Manager Joe Girardi also rolled four relievers through, probably to give them experience and comfort in the setting as much as anything. Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, and Joba Chamberlain each collected one or two outs.

Then Mariano Rivera was brought in for a shut-you-up ninth inning. It felt like overkill, really, especially against the bottom of the Twins bating order. Punto managed a walk and Span a single, but of course Rivera had his way in the end.

If Girardi gave his middle relievers some time just to get comfortable in the playoff mode, you might even wonder if the Twins are a tad buoyed up by having two on base against the Mighty Mo. But it’s stretch to find a lot of hope here.

They say defense and pitching wins championships. The Twins showed off some good defense, particularly in Nick Punto’s running snare of a groundball that required him to make the throw to first while spinning into a sideways somersault.

But they also showed a defensive lapse. Delmon Young made a weak throw from left, and Orlando Cabrera handled it poorly in the relay, allowing that run to score on Swisher’s hit. The Twins have cut down runners in that situation, but failed to do so tonight.

The defense, though, will probably do us justice. But Twins pitching, at its very finest, is of the pitch to contact flavor. They don’t have a single pitcher who can hurl pure flames at the plate. Yankee hitters can’t be fooled by much, and can’t be fooled for long, as their second look at Duensing showed. They can be stymied only by pure firepower—Justin Verlander had a chance against them. But the Twins crew will have trouble in every game ahead.

[games 84, 85, 86] Chances

In baseball, you get your chances. A starting hitter gets at least three per game, often four. A pitcher gets three balls and a hitter gets two strikes before anything’s settled, if then. A team gets nine innings, with 27 outs. Repeated, most spectacularly, over 162 games.

But the chances aren’t simply those allotments per plate appearance, per inning, per game, per season. Wedged into any interesting baseball situation are several potential outcomes, with a chance for any one to come true.

Wednesday night, the Twins had five stark chances to win the game. Many games turn on a moment or two that everyone watching realizes will be the watershed. Others accrete more subtly, turning on hidden hinges. Tonight, we could see what the Twins needed to do, when they needed to do it, and pretty much how they could solve the little problem of a one-run Yankee lead. But each time, the plain, pure difficulty of baseball intervened.

The series against the Yankees this year has been especially tragic. The Twins lost all four games played in Yankee Stadium, each by a single run, three of them in the bottom of the ninth with sudden death home field advantage obliterating a prior Twins lead.

Those losses were the centerpiece of a nasty losing streak that had the team wobbling for a while. So, we lost with heartbreak and we lost with standings significance.

It doesn’t get any worse—unless you count Tuesday night’s 10-2 trampling under the pinstripes. The Yankees simply defied Scott Baker to get out of an inning without giving up a run, and then continued to pile it on after the bullpen was summoned. That game was such a protracted misery of singles piling up into runs that I couldn’t write a recap. The highlight, for any Twins fan, was Carlos Gomez robbing Alex Rodriguez of a grand slam by timing a perfect leap in deep centerfield to reach back, beyond the wall, and yank in the ball. So there—it could have been 14-2.

Back to Wednesday. The Yankees score first and banish Anthony Swarzak before the fifth inning is over. They don’t precisely overwhelm with power, but the hits keep coming. Brett Gardner’s two-run single was a pretty innocuous piece of hitting, but it was part of a three-run second inning, and the Yankees never lost the lead.

The Twins do some answering back, but in the early stages it takes the form of capitalizing on passed balls and wild pitches from the hard throwing AJ Burnett. Burnett’s pure torque gives catcher Jorge Posada all he can handle, and some he cannot. The Twins score two in the third, with Denard Span advancing to third and then to home on wild pitches, and Joe Mauer hitting an RBI double to bring in Brendan Harris. It’s Yankees 3, Twins 2, with plenty of time left.

Plenty of chances, that is. In the fifth inning, Michael Cuddyer strikes out with bases loaded. In the sixth, it was Span who went down swinging, this time with two on. On to the seventh, in which the solo homer from Mauer that brings the Twins to within a run is followed by Justin Morneau striking out. Three times Burnett faced some trouble and he shut it right down with masterful pitching.

In the eighth, the Yankees bring out Phil Hughes, who is just as overpowering as Burnett was. Ron Gardenhire uses all the moving parts on his bench, and has Brian Buscher hit for Carlos Gomez. Good choice: with two outs, Buscher gets a single, a little ray of light.

Now Gardy tries Jose Morales pinch hitting for Nick Punto. Last week, Morales pulled off the small miracle of a clutch hit, so he’s no mere backup catcher. In fact, Joe Girardi thinks it best to go to Mariano Rivera for a four-out save.

Each manager has sent out the best player he can muster. Rivera proves the master of the specific occasion—Morales lightly grounds out.

Four chances lost, but the definition of a last chance is the bottom of the ninth. The main accomplishment of the eighth inning may well be moving far enough through the batting order to get Joe Mauer one last plate appearance. So far, he’s 3 for 5 with a homer, RBI double, and a single.

But if Mauer is going to rescue this game, he’s going to do it alone, for he comes to the plate with two outs. It is, still, a chance. The chance to tie, or the chance to get on base and wait for Morneau to drive him in. The chance to keep the game going until the Yankees’ small but persistent advantage can be overcome.

It’s a chance, but it’s a chance for Rivera as well. Mauer makes contact, but it’s an easy liner for Derek Jeter to scoop up and throw to first. Game over.

Thursday afternoon, the Yankees and Twins concluded their 7-game season series. The infinite excellence of Yankee baseball was once again on display, and the Twins lost by two runs. New York sweeps the series, home and away. The four losses in Yankee Stadium were a low point of the early season, and these three straight losses threaten to bring serious gloom as the Twin commence a series against the White Sox.

The Sox have been winning, and the Tigers have been winning, and the Twins are back at .500. I can imagine, with clarity and likelihood, both scenarios—the Twins staying close enough all year and pulling ahead at the end; the Twins hovering at .500 until inexorable inertia saps them lower still.

Right now, at four games back of Detroit and one and a half behind Chicago, the Twins resemble the Mets—a team no one can quite give up on, but without what we might call the winning template. The Yankees, meanwhile, got their wish in the Metrodome. They’re now tied with the Red Sox, and have clawed all the way to the top.

[game 64] New York Basbeall

The Twins are doing a fine job of winning without me. They beat the Cubs 2-0. Rookie Anthony Swarzak got his second win by holding the Cubs to 4 hits over 7 innings. Outstanding work, but the current wave of injuries will require the Twins to send Swarzak back to the minors for a while as they call up catcher Jose Morales. Michael Cuddyer is now out a while with his slow-to-heal right finger, and Denard Span remains on the DL with dizziness the injury report doesn’t clarify further. Swarzak will be back. Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel got the RBIs, and the Twin are finally doing well on the road.

I sampled another game today, with the Twins under their usual Fox Saturday blockade and me trying to reexamine this blog’s mission by visiting new teams. And I really haven’t been getting out much—I didn’t know JJ Putz was on the DL until it came up in passing during game two of the Mets-Yankees Subway Series.

I decided to let Fox clobber me with New York baseball, the only games they ever want to broadcast. It infuriates me that to Fox there is baseball, and then there is Yankee baseball. The idea that the Yankees somehow play a different game because they have more local fans and a bigger payroll is ultimately insulting to any baseball fan. But ratings are all Fox cares about, and you get them when you control the broadcast in the NY metro area.

The new Yankee Stadium looked the most filled I’ve seen it so far. The Yankees have re-priced some tickets in an admission that a single baseball game is not, really, a luxury item that should cost a week’s salary to witness in person. But I suspect the prime seat-filling force was the Mets fans, eager to see how many home runs their team could hit in this homer-happy ballpark. The answer today: two.

In New York, you play baseball, and then hope you can thread your way through the newspaper and sportstalk coverage. I have some built-in bias toward the value of the press, but I have to admit that they load up on

impossible, baited questions in what really aren’t interviews but pure efforts to waylay players into making sensational quotes.

In New York, this is intensified because there are more outlets dissecting every play and every statement, and because the criticism is harsher. The theory seems to be, the more millions a player earns, the more unforgivable his errors. I have my own set of irrational player loathings, but I don’t delight in seeing Manny Ramirez belittled, or in hearing Kevin Youkilis sound like a dolt. (Well, maybe I find a little joy in the latter, but I try to take the long, compassionate view.) But sportschat is all about righteous indignation, the negative emotion that gives such a big energy boost.

In this context, we have the sorrows of Luis Castillo. Castillo is quite familiar to Twins fans. GM Terry Ryan scooped him up when he was overlooked after a bad year or two for the Marlins, and he proved to be one of the big finds of the 2006 season, for any team. He played so well that the Twins could keep him only until the middle of the 2007 season. The Mets swooped in with their millions and he was gone.

Castillo is an excellent second baseman. Just today I saw him cover a great distance to snare a line drive from Derek Jeter. He got the ball falling forward, nearly about to take a header, and facing to right field. He switched direction and got the throw off to first and missed getting Jeter by inches. It was a heroic effort, though a run did score. I mention it because it reminds me of the energy Castillo always shows in the field.

Last night, the Subway Series opened with the Mets on their way to humiliating their crosstown rivals. Always a satisfying prospect, if you happen to be the humiliator, not the humiliatee. It’s the ninth inning, and ace closer Francisco Rodriguez has two outs. Derek Jeter is on second and Mark Teixeira is on first, and the Yanks are down 7-8.

Alex Rodriguez hits a simple pop-up and Castillo, who knows how or why, lets the ball bounce out of his glove.

Two runs score and the Mets lose and the full, painful extent of baseball possibilities is once again visited. Yes, players will miss easy pop-ups. It will happen so rarely that it will seem they owe us a bigger than usual apology, but it will happen.

Today, Castillo fields just fine, gets two hits, and the Mets cruise to a beefy 6-2 victory behind Fernando Nieve. One of the truly useful qualities in any sport is that playing well demands that you shake off mistakes. When they talk about handy life lessons from gym class, this is actually what they mean. The ability to bounce back from an error is probably more important than the skill that got you into the sport in the first place. Luis Castillo bounced back.

As we expected he would. But consider the case of Chuck Knoblauch (another former Twin, of all things), who inexplicably began to make wild throws from second base for the Yankees. It became a destructive mindset, and Knoblauch left baseball unable to cure it.

I don’t envy the players for the Mets and Yankees. The pressure would so quickly obliterate the pleasures of baseball that you would lose everything except the chance for glory. How much fun can baseball actually be for A-Rod? For Johan Santana?

But perhaps it will be enough for Luis Castillo that he can shake off Friday night’s mistake and go back to playing the way he’s always capable of playing. Stay loose, Luis.

[games 39, 40, 41] I Am My Team

I am my team. The Twins are losing and it is affecting the quality of my play.

We lost all four games to the Yankees. The losing script was repeated almost identically in each game: score first, let the Yankees catch up, have some bullpen bumbling, then give up the winning run in withering walkoff mode.

Perhaps it was the repetition of this nasty ending; perhaps it was the fact that I began to doubt our chances even when a skinny little lead was in hand. If we were going to let it slip away, night after night, it didn’t feel like we had the power to control anything in the field.

I fell into a funk during Monday night’s game, the end of the Yankees’ sweep. PS: they have kept up winning ever since, as if the Twins are their personal launching pad. So much for the new stadium lifting the curse the Twins have felt in the Bronx.

Then I summoned hope, the best I could, last night as we started a series in Chicago. The White Sox had just been roasted and toasted mercilessly by the As, and had their own 5-game losing streak going. Two losing teams collide! Perhaps the Twins will be the first to recover.

Sorry: no. Last night, early lead, eventual loss. The Sox gave Scott Baker a bad inning in the second, but it wasn’t as bad as the meltdowns he had been sustaining. He only gave up 3 runs. Reason for hope? No. The Sox would just keep scoring in more than one inning, and distribute the home run duty over a variety of hitters.

It was such a thunking loss I couldn’t write about it. I am my team. My puny ability to write this puny blog dwindled away, just as Joe Mauer’s ability to get an RBI waned. I am in their slump.

This is ridiculous.

As I have learned from other, mightier sports fans, when your team is losing you can switch to the euphoric release of yelling at them. Condemn your players with righteous indignation. Negative energy like that always gives you a boost, doesn’t it?

Sorry to say it doesn’t work for me. I take it hard. Scott Baker! Come back to last year’s form! Francisco Liriano! Please pitch the way we have hope for three years you could!

Tonight Liriano had a fourth inning from hell. In the top of the inning, we have our standard bright ray of light: we score two runs. There’s something about these 2-0 leads—we can’t keep them. Liriano gave up a two-run homer to Paul Konerko to turn the advantage into a tie. Liriano kept the bases busy, and Josh Fields hit an RBI single to put the Sox ahead 3-2.

Liriano didn’t have, precisely, a bad inning. He had some terrible at-bats, and some good ones. He was as close to getting out of trouble and to getting in it, but the Sox had enough chances to do their damage.

With one out and Fields on first, Corky Miller doubled. Liriano fooled Scott Podsednik quickly, and he fouled out to Mauer on one pitch. Now we’re in the sleepier part of the batting order, and light-hitting Jayson Nix comes up. He runs the count full with a barrage of foul-offs and keeps Liriano working long enough to make a mistake and walk him. Bases loaded.

Two outs, but then that needless walk. Jermaine Dye makes use of grand slam conditions to put the Sox up 7-2. Just like that.

The Twins do not exactly rally, though Michael Cuddyer hits a home run with Mauer on base to nudge the score to 7-4. The other bright spot is Luis Ayala, whose middle relief work had been woeful lately. He pitched three neat scoreless innings. Jesse Crain also had a quick 1-2-3 eighth.

So we can stop blaming the bullpen and blame the starter instead. But in fact we have to give more credit to the White Sox’s John Danks, whose fastball had such tricky late movement that all our hitters looked pretty helpless up there.

The Twins had their best last chance in the eighth, but Scott Linebrink dispatched the best of the lineup, setting down Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer in order. The Twins can’t put off scoring when they have a lineup that skews so heavily toward these stars and away from everyone else.

As feared, in the ninth Bobby Jenks was able to get the save for Chicago. With his insanity-plea bleach blond chin beard, he faced down our best final efforts. After Jason Kubel and Joe Crede were set down, Brian Buscher pinch hit and got a single. Respectability, even in defeat. Jose Morales tried to keep it going, but grounded out, in a play that required Alexi Ramirez to cope with a hot shot to short.

A week ago, we were maybe a game out of first place. Now we’re 5-1/2 back. Detroit, whom we had the pleasure of sweeping, has gone on a tear to get the division lead away from Kansas City. They’ve won their last five; we’ve lost six in a row.

The Twins’ current record of 18-23 is a portrait of misery. But I must listen to manager Ron Gardenhire, who points out that those losses to the Yankees occurred while we were playing well, just not well enough to win. Sometimes you must accept the fact that victory doesn’t automatically follow a good effort. Keep playing.

Keep playing. It’s only baseball, and it can be fun, but baseball is tricky. It’s hard to hit a great fastball, hard to run down every fly ball, hard to locate every single pitch. So you will lose more times that you think your heart can bear. But you must keep playing.