The Twins and Yankees appear to have taken on the burden of playing the exciting games this postseason. Six playoff games have been played so far and four of them have been 8-3 or 9-3 blowouts, though one of those wasn't broken open until the ninth.
The only close finishes were in the Twins tense 2-0 win over the Yanks in Game 1 Tuesday and the Yankees' seesaw, 12-inning, 7-6 decision in Game 2 Wednesday, a game that would have gone down in history as a classic if it had been played later in the month. It also might have put Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on the hot seat if it had happened closer to Halloween. Ask Grady Little about that.
It's not every day you get to see two of the best relief pitchers in baseball blow a lead in the same game, but that's what happened Wednesday. First Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, arguably the greatest relief pitcher in postseason history, came in with one out and two on in the eighth and the Yankees up 5-3.
He promptly gave up a single to Justin Morneau for one run, then a double down the left-field line to Corey Koskie that would have plated two and given the Twins the lead, but it hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double. That kept the go-ahead run at third, and from that point, Rivera snapped back to form, getting the next two outs to preserve the tie. It was the third blown postseason save of Rivera's career.
The game went to extra innings and in the 10th the Twins brought in Joe Nathan, who blossomed this year into a first-rate closer after coming over from the Giants, where he'd recovered from early-career injuries to turn in a nice year in relief in 2003. He blew through the fierce top third of the Yankees' order -- Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield -- in the 10th.
In the 11th, against Tanyon Sturtze, the Twins got the speedy Christian Guzman to third with the go-ahead run with two outs, but the hitter was Pat Borders. Pat Borders, that rare major leaguer who is actually older than your humble typist. Pat Borders, who last played 100 games in the big leagues in 1993, who last played 40 games in the big leagues in 1998. He struck out.
Nathan gave up only a one-out walk while striking out two in the 11th, and then Torii Hunter gave the Twins a 6-5 lead with a home run in the 12th. But Nathan took the mound again in the bottom of the inning. Before Wednesday he'd appeared in 43 straight games without throwing more than one inning. He hadn't entered a third inning all year, and now that's what he was doing.
He struck out John Olerud with his last whiff of gas, and then ran off the road. He threw nine straight balls, walking Miguel Cairo and Jeter. And still Gardenhire left him out there. "I probably left him out there too long," he'd say later. "But, really, the options, I didn't like them too well, either."
The options to face the next hitter, Alex Rodriguez, were J.C. Romero, a semi-dependable lefty, and Jesse Crain, a righty who turned in a fine rookie season after being called up in early August, but without ever having to face Alex Rodriguez with a playoff game on the line. Gardenhire thought even a gassed Nathan was the best thing in the store.
The scenario will be familiar to Red Sox fans, who skewered Little for thinking Pedro Martinez was the best thing in the store in Game 7 against the Yankees last year. That misjudgment cost Little his job as Boston manager. This one won't cost Gardenhire his, partly because the game wasn't as significant, partly because Gardenhire has more going for him than Little did and partly because Twins fans and Red Sox fans are different species.
But it was just as bad a decision. All Nathan had to face, with no command at all of his pitches, was one of the best hitters in baseball. A-Rod hit a towering shot to left-center, the deep part of Yankee Stadium known as Death Valley. It landed and hopped over the wall, forcing Jeter, who would have waltzed home, to return to third -- the second time a ground-rule double had cost a team the game.
Gardenhire closed the barn door after that, letting Nathan walk Sheffield intentionally before bringing in Romero to face Hideki Matsui. Matsui hit what would have been a game-winning line single to right, but Jacque Jones, playing shallow to turn exactly that kind of hit into an out, caught it. Jeter alertly tagged and Jones made an embarrassment of a throw, the ball dying around first base, not more than 125 feet from Jones. Jeter beat the relay to win the game.
How do you keep a job as a major league right fielder with an arm like that? Especially when you hit like Jacque Jones?
We'll never know how much Gardenhire's error will end up costing the Twins. For all we know Crain would have come in and given up a game-winning home run to Rodriguez. But we do know that the Twins had their foot on the Yankees' necks, with a lead in extra innings, and they let the Yankees escape. Now, instead of going home up 2-0 and needing just one win to take the series, the Twins go home tied 1-1 and need to sweep at home to avoid a Game 5 in the Bronx.
It's tough for visiting teams to win in the noisy, bizarre Metrodome, but it was tough last year too, and the Yankees went there with the series tied 1-1 and took both games. The Yankees are the Yankees -- write this down, kids, these are the insights: The Yankees are the Yankees -- and you let them off the deck at your peril.
In the early game Wednesday, the Astros beat the Braves 9-3 to take a 1-0 lead in that series. Roger Clemens, still recovering from that sports-only disease known as "flu-like symptoms," struggled but pitched well enough to win. Jaret Wright, the Braves starter, struggled and didn't.
In the late game, the Red Sox took a 2-0 lead over the Angels by beating them 8-3, breaking open a close game with a four-run ninth. If you saw that ninth inning and you don't live on the West Coast, you're a hell of a baseball fan. It began at 1:37 a.m. EDT. You can miss a lot of playoff baseball if you sleep.
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Trivial presidential trivia dept. [PERMALINK]
Reader Ben Zoll of Virginia -- cradle of democracy and birthplace of presidents -- writes with an intriguing question. Probably only intriguing to me. If the Astros and Red Sox make the World Series, he wonders, "Would this be the first time the World Series has mirrored the presidential race?" John Kerry is from Massachusetts and President Bush is from Texas, as you may have heard.
This is the kind of pointless trivia I can really get into, and after a little research I think the answer is: Yes, that would be a first.
The closest we've ever come -- and to say it wasn't even remotely close is to grossly exaggerate how close we came -- was in the 1912 and 1916 elections.
In 1916 the Brooklyn Robins -- the once and future Dodgers -- played the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. In the election, President Woodrow Wilson ran against Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson was from New Jersey, in the way that Ronald Reagan was from California. He wasn't born there but he lived much of his adult life there and was elected governor. Hughes was from New York.
Now, New Jersey isn't New York, but if the Yankees had managed to win the American League that year, I'd have been willing to count a New York-New Jersey presidential election as mirroring a New York-Brooklyn World Series. It'd be a stretch, but stretching's good for you. The Yankees had a good year, for them. They went 80-74, their first winning season since 1910 and only their fourth in 16 years of existence. But that was only good enough for fourth place, 11 games out. They wouldn't win a pennant until 1921.
In 1912 Wilson had run against former President Teddy Roosevelt, a New Yorker, and incumbent William Howard Taft of Ohio. The Giants won the National League Pennant, so I'd have considered it a presidential mirror if either the Yankees, then still known as the Highlanders, or the Cleveland Indians, known at the time as the Naps, had won the American League. But the Highlanders lost 102 games and finished 55 games out of first. The Naps were 24 and a half games better, but still in a somnambulant fifth place.
Eugene V. Debs also ran as a Socialist, as was his habit in those days. He was from Indiana but he spent enough time in Chicago that I'd have been willing to count it if the White Sox had won the pennant. They finished fourth.
I'm stretching like mad, but history doesn't want to cooperate. Astros-Red Sox would be the first World Series ever to involve teams from the same states as two major presidential candidates.
What this means is exactly the same as what it means that the Red Sox haven't won a championship since 1918: nothing. But it's fun to think about and hasn't been beaten into the ground.
Prediction: If the Astros and Red Sox make the World Series, this subject will be beaten into the ground. My God, just think about Jeanne Zelasko's script for the opening of the Game 1 broadcast! But you read about it here first. Unless there's some other writer out there who's interested in meaningless drivel.
Previous column: Blue language, purple prose
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