Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Playoff Fever: Starting Off With a Bang!

About a month ago I quit biting my nails. It was a terrible habit and someone seemed to catch me doing it at all the worst possible times. Usually, when I decide to do something I go full bore into it; quitting has to be cold turkey or nothing. For a while there, I was so proud of my own will power. Sadly, my new nails are only a memory after last night’s game. For almost a month, people have talked about how this could be "the year" for the Twins. They finally had the weapons to be taken seriously. If the Twins had lost last night, none of that would have mattered. The series and their season would have been essentially over. The psychological effect of being down to the Yankees after throwing their best pitcher since 1991 would have been too much to overcome. Instead, Johan Santana and the rest of the team pulled through. They didn’t exactly follow the script in doing so, but it put them where they need to be.

Johan was not the same pitcher who dominated the American League during the second half of the season. He was very hittable and the Yankees had numerous threats going all night. Santana struggled locating his pitches, but he was able to adapt. As a result, he toyed with the Yankees sluggers, getting the big strikeout double play when he needed to get out of a jam. There are no words to describe how amazing it is that a 25 year-old pitcher can come into Yankees Stadium against the most storied franchise in baseball, not have his best stuff, and still hand the Yankees their second postseason shutout in as many games.

Santana was largely helped by the defense behind him. People were worried about how Michael Cuddyer would play in the field going into the series. Last night he made every play he needed to and even turned several difficult double plays before exiting the game in the 8th. The Twins defense as a whole came to play and they were lead by Torii Hunter. Hunter threw a bullet to nail Jorge Posada at the plate early in the game. If Posada had scored, it would have been a different game, as the Twins would have had to play catch-up. Later, as the Yankees tried to get back into the game, Hunter came up big again robbing Alex Rodriguez of an extra-base hit while crashing into the wall. No doubt A-Rod will be placing a call to Barry Bonds to vent his frustration.

Since the Doug Mientkiewicz trade Torii Hunter has taken control of the team. He said that this team was going to play with a new intensity coming into the playoffs, and he backed that statement up on Tuesday. He understands that if the Twins want to be the best, they have to beat the best. There is no reason they should back down. They have been in the playoffs for 3 straight years and the time of playing in awe of the opponent is over.

The Twins did just enough to scratch across the runs they needed to win. Cuddyer, who is in the lineup for his bat, had two hits, the first being the most important. Henry Blanco, who is definitely not in the lineup for his bat, then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to put him in scoring position. Shannon Stewart then continued to be the driving force of the offense by driving home the first run of the game. The second run came off the bat of Jacque Jones, who had been struggling both on the field and with the death of his father. He is at his best when he is driving the ball the opposite way and he finally did that in his last two at-bats. It was a great thing that he was able to get the homer and it was a special moment as he rounded the bases and crossed home plate.

Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan then shut the door on the victory with two shutout innings. They both needed to get their feet wet pitching for the first time in their roles in the postseason. They were more than able to accomplish that and ease any concerns about experience. If they can continue to be lights out, it shrinks the game down to 7 innings. Not a bad proposition with pitchers like Santana and Game 2 starter Brad Radke on the team.

The Yankees showed their flaws last night as well. They are a team that relies on the home run, and when it doesn’t come, they are unable to put together big innings. They made several costly baserunning mistakes to run themselves out of a couple early opportunities. They fired their three best bullets in Mike Mussina, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera and still lost. Now they must rely on Jon Lieber, Orlando Hernandez, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez to win at least two games.

The best battle of the game came with Gary Sheffield at the plate with a runner on first. He took some powerful swings and really looked like he wanted to drive a pitch out of the park. Santana battled as Sheffield fouled off several pitchers before finally grounding into a double play. Prior to and even after that at-bat, Santana had struggled with his control. However, he was in the zone pitching to Sheffield. He never let him get comfortable and was as wicked as ever. That confrontation defined the game and perhaps Santana as a pitcher.

Looking ahead, this series is not over by a long shot. The Twins needed to win this game as they do every time Santana pitches. Unfortunately, nothing in baseball is a given. They have a great shot to win Game 2 with their horse Brad Radke on the mound tonight. They have momentum and home field advantage.

The Yankees are not going to just lie down though. They don’t want to be embarrassed by losing 2 games in their house. They still have a lineup filled with All-Stars and pitchers capable of showing up on any particular day. The Twins won the first game last year too. The difference this year is that they want it more and are no longer afraid of the “mystique,” letting their talent to do the talking instead. In the meantime, I have to deal with the agony of some very short nails and the knowledge that I get to do it all over again tonight and hopefully, for the next 3 weeks.

-John Betzler

Ryan's quick take on Game 1

Hello, Twins fans. I just thought I would supplement John's post today with a couple thoughts of my own about yesterday's Game 1.

Many people (i.e. Yankee fans and those who foretold a Yankee victory) will point to yesterday's win and say, "The Twins won the first game last year too, and that didn't mean a thing." Well, I'm here to tell those people otherwise. While it pains me to admit it, the Yankees pretty much gave the Twins Game 1 last year. Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano single-handedly gave the Twins two runs (the margin of victory in the 3-1 win) and the Yankees simply did not play well. The Twins didn't play all that well either; they just took advantage of New York's mistakes.

Last night was different. The Yankees were focused and ready to go, and they no longer consider the Twins to be a mere speed bump on the road to the World Series. They knew Johan Santana was going to be tough, and they were ready for him. Instead of a gift win, last night's victory was well-deserved. The Twins won the same way they have all season: good pitching, great defense, and the occasional clutch hit. The Yankees didn't serve up a nice fat one this time; the Twins were ready to go and did what they had to do.

As opposed to 2003, I'm no longer just hoping that the Twins will capitalize on their Game 1 victory. I expect them to.

-Ryan Maus