New York vs. Minnesota

10/04/2004

By JIM (Doc) SABIN

The long, powerful history of the New York Yankees might not even be necessary to intimidate the Minnesota Twins. The biggest obstacle may be their own memories.

It was just a year ago that these two clubs came together in the American League Division Series. As before, the teams won their respective divisions; as before, the Yankees look vulnerable, and the Twins have nothing to lose. And as before, the Twins will send Johan Santana to the mound in Game 1.  

Last year, Santana came out strong, tossing four shutout innings. But he left with a muscle cramp, and while the Twins took that game, they dropped the next three in the best-of-five, scoring a lone run in each of them. Worse, it was Santana himself that gave up six runs in that fateful fourth game, pitching on short rest with the injury lingering.

But that was last year’s Santana, a youngster in his first postseason. This year’s Santana has developed into possibly the most dominant left-hander in baseball not named Randy Johnson — and he might have that guy beat, too. All he did this season was go 20-6 and strike out 265 batters, numbers that could very well earn him the Cy Young Award. They’re numbers the Yankees would love to have. For unlike last season’s formidable rotation of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Mike Mussina, this year’s rotation is shaky at best.

Mussina is the only one of those four still on the team, though to say he’s back would be a stretch. Yes, nearly 10 percent of his career wins are against Minnesota. But the Moose is having possibly the worst season of his career; his 4.59 ERA is the second-highest he’s posted, and the .276 batting average he’s surrendered is the worst. At 35, this was also the first season in a decade that he didn’t throw 200 innings in a season. The drop in his velocity has to be giving the Yankees some worries.

But he’s still the best they’ve got, barring another miraculous October run by Orlando Hernandez. El Duque could prove up to the task, but with a balky shoulder, the Yanks aren’t sure they’ll even be able to use him this series. Jon Lieber is the only other guy they know will start a game; Kevin Brown would go if Hernandez can’t, and the Yankees are reluctant to use Javier Vazquez or Esteban Loaiza, who both collapsed down the stretch, in a game that means something.

This, then, is Minnesota’s biggest advantage. The Twins will likely go with a three-man rotation for the series, with Brad Radke, coming off the best season of his career, and Carlos Silva, who struggled down the stretch but has still won games. If Santana can’t go in Game 4, or if the Twins don’t absolutely need him, they could turn to Kyle Lohse. That’s a big if.

The starting pitching may be Minnesota’s only advantage, though. The Yankees’ new-wave murderer’s row didn’t quite post the figures everyone expected, but the club still boasts advantages at nearly every position. Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield put up their usual numbers, Hideki Matsui quietly had a breakout year, and Derek Jeter salvaged a respectable season out of a miserable April.

Minnesota, meanwhile, won playing smallball. No one on the roster reached 30 homers yet again, but five players swiped at least 10 bags. The highlight-reel outfielders played to their usual level defensively, and the offense managed to scrape together enough to win a pathetically bad division.

OFFENSE: It’s hard to imagine anyone is disappointed with the way the Yankees produced. The team knocked out a club-record 242 home runs (yes, a YANKEE club record). Five men scored 100 runs. A-Rod, Matsui and Sheffield each cracked 30 homers. Even the “weak link” position, second base, produced; Miguel Cairo hit a solid .292 and stole 11 bags while holding down the slot defensively. The only rough patch was first, where Jason Giambi’s illness and injuries forced Tony Clark and then John Olerud into the lineup.

For Minnesota, no one guy carried the team. The best hitters are very, very young; Justin Morneau and Lew Ford are rookies, and the rest of the lineup has very little postseason experience. By the way, the Twins currently on the roster own a dismal .242 batting average against Mussina, Brown, Vazquez and Loaiza. ADVANTAGE: Yankees.

DEFENSE: It’s rare that a week goes by without Torii Hunter or Jacque Jones showing up on the highlight reels; they and Ford combined to commit just 10 errors all season. Morneau hasn’t been a downgrade from the slick-fielding Doug Mientkiewicz, traded to Boston in mid-season. And catcher Henry Blanco gunned down 49 percent (30 of 61) of would-be base stealers.

The Yankees enjoy no such luxuries. Though Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton still have high fielding percentages, they’ve both lost a step in center. Matsui’s glove is still a liability, and though A-Rod performed well in his first season at the hot corner, his 13 errors tied for the team lead with Jeter’s 13 at short. Posada caught only 27 percent of the baserunners trying to steal on him. ADVANTAGE: Twins

STARTING PITCHING: Santana leads a capable, if not well-known, staff. Radke quietly posted the best ERA of his career (3.48), though he won only 11 games, and was a workhorse again, posting his ninth 200-inning season at age 31. The wild card could be Silva, who started the season well but tailed off after the All-Star Break. He ended up with a 14-8 record and a 4.21 ERA. If needed, Lohse’s 5.33 ERA will look like batting practice to the seasoned Yankee hitters.

The Yanks will counter with Mussina, who, despite his struggles this season, is a big-time pitcher with Hall of Fame potential. If he can win even one matchup against Santana, the Twins are dead in the water. Lieber will take the ball in Game 2; he’s been either very good or terrible this season. Vazquez is probably the best pitcher on this staff, but whether the pressures of New York or the consecutive 230-inning seasons in the obscurity of Montreal got to him, he faltered badly down the stretch. Worse, he’s lost the confidence of manager Joe Torre, and could join Esteban Loaiza in the exile of the bullpen. Hernandez has been phenomenal down the stretch, coming back from surgery after missing the entire 2003 season, but he’s banged up. He’s been almost legendary in the postseason. If he can’t go, Kevin Brown, 39, will pitch Game 3. He, too, has struggled this season, but is still capable of strong outings. ADVANTAGE: Twins.

BULLPEN: The Twins have a good pen. The Yankee pen is simply better. Mariano Rivera was his usual spectacular self, closing out 53 wins with a sub-2.00 ERA. Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon set him up well through most of the season, though Quantrill had his problems. The Twins counter with Joe Nathan, who emerged as a top closer in his own right, and Juan Rincon, who rolled up 11 wins and a 2.63 ERA. Minnesota’s pen is a little deeper, but the Yanks make up for it in talent. ADVANTAGE: Yankees.

Ultimately, while Santana and the Twins could sneak in and steal one, they simply don’t have enough weapons to make it likely. Factor in the Yanks’ long experience in the postseason and one of the deadliest lineups in the history of the game, they’ll be tough to beat – especially with home field advantage.

It all adds up to history repeating itself. Almost.

PICK: Yankees in 4.