New York vs. Minnesota
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
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
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.
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:
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:
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.