Tough Questions, No Answers as Twins Wilt in New York Again
It's as perennial as autumn leaves in Central Park, as banal as tourists flocking to Macy's. October after October after October, the Yankees turn a formidable Twins team to mush. After putting the cherry atop Saturday night's ALDS suspense-less sweep -- New York 6, Minnesota 1 in Game 3, the Yankees now facing almost an entire week before they'll play again, the Twins staring at a winter of questions and discontent -- there really wasn't much left to say.
Ron Gardenhire said it anyway.
"We can't seem to put it together," said the Minnesota manager. "Once we get into the playoffs, we're playing pretty good baseball games. And you have to be at your best. ... We know we're a good baseball team. You just have to put it together at the right time. And we just haven't done it."
It's impossible to sugarcoat the lopsidedness: for the 12th time in the last 13 postseason clashes, the Yankees had beaten the Twins. It was the ninth straight New York postseason win over Minnesota, the last six stretching across two Octobers. Someday the Twins might push the Yankees to a Game 5, but for now the ledger is an uncomfortable shade of red. Since winning their postseason opener in 2004 at the Stadium across the street, the Twins have gone down in the first round in four games twice and in three games twice.
Those who want to mock Gardenhire as the Marty Schottenheimer of baseball should know there is no shame in losing to the Yankees, the defending champs whose terrific homegrown four never seem to fade at this time of year and who had a young pitcher whose first postseason start was over-the-moon brilliant. Phil Hughes' fastball Saturday night was as wicked as CC Sabathia's slider from Game 1, as dazzling as Andy Pettitte's cutter had been in Game 2. Hughes, perfect early, didn't allow a hit until Denard Span's single led off the fourth, and after tossing seven scoreless innings he left to a thunderous ovation. So much for the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup spinning around history. So much for them ever hitting back-to-back balls out of the infield.
No, no shame at all in losing to a team that did a fine imitation of vulnerable down the regular-season stretch, dropping seven of 10 games to tumble into the wild card spot. If you listen to know-it-all New York fans, this is exactly how those cunning Yankees planned it, knowing the Twins made a habit of playing rodent to the Yankees' snake.
But don't call it domination, not around Gardenhire. Typical Midwesterner, he's a glass-half-full kind of guy, even when it's impossible not to notice liquid seeping everywhere.
"Dominating, I think, is not the right word to use," he said, when someone dared drop it. "On the record-wise, yes, they've won nine in a row. That's not dominating us, other than wins and losses, the games are really close and could go either way. We come up with a big hit or a big pitch they can turn the other way.
"We just haven't been able to do that."
Put aside the D-word for a moment. Should the manager wear the scarlet B for Blame? Gardenhire hasn't had much trouble steering his team through September, and he did a fine job again this year despite losing All-Star closer Joe Nathan before the season began. Gardenhire and Twins management were absolutely correct to leave Justin Morneau off the playoff roster, a concussion hardly the sort of injury that should be trifled with, no matter how desperately the Twins needed his bat. Without Morneau, Minnesota was thin off the bench, though his absence didn't seem to scar the Twins as they easily took the American League Central.
Gardenhire gets his team to the playoffs, which is exactly what a manager is supposed to do (unless it's the manager of the Yankees, then he's expected to cure diabetes and male-pattern baldness en route to winning the World Series). But come October it's as if the earth opens up and the Twinkies get swallowed whole, devoured by the bullies in the Bronx.
"They're incredibly tough. There's never an easy out from that team. You make a mistake and they make you pay for it," Minnesota starter Brian Duensing was saying in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, not too long after he had given up five runs in 3 1/3 innings. The plan, he said, had been to go inside early, jam them a bit and make the batters sweat, but as usual the Yankees were as patient as monks.
Duensing apologized to the "fans back home (for) letting them down." Across the room, first baseman Michael Cuddyer noted the Yankees' pitching rotation had been "lights out against us," and defensively "they don't seem to do anything wrong." But then someone asked Cuddyer if these had been the same themes in previous postseason morgues and Cuddyer blinked hard. He was drafted by the Twins in 1997, survived those dark days, and has appeared in all of Minnesota's playoffs since 2002, playing whatever position the team asked. Cut Cuddyer's veins and he'll bleed Twin blue.
"Yeah, it sucks," he said, knowing he had offered the same exit lines 12 months ago. "Plain and simple."
They had injuries, most obvious being Joe Mauer's sore knee and Jim Thome's creaky back, but Mauer would rather dive under a subway car than blame his bad few days on inflammation in his joints. The reigning AL MVP was 3-for-12 with no RBI and three strikeouts in three games against the Yanks, and his throwing error in the bottom of the fourth Saturday led to a Yankee run that made it New York 5, Minnesota 0.
Mauer was the most vocal Twin after his team dropped two straight at home, telling his teammates there was no quit in the club he had watched all season, the club that survived losing its closer. He reminded them that, top to bottom, the Twins lineup was hardly chickenspit, or something like that, but next to or behind the plate, Mauer never looked comfortable in this series.
"We just didn't play up to the best of our abilities," Mauer said.
Thome walked around the Stadium before the game telling anyone who asked he was "as good as gold," but that wasn't true either. His teammates said his back was killing him. Thome batted a quiet .100 in the series, with no RBI. Where last year the Twins were victimized by a bad call from an umpire, this time they could only point the finger inward, mostly at their failure to move runners over (they went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position), to hold a lead (something they twice failed to do) and hope the Yankee pitchers were still stuck in September. You can't buy killer instinct, a trait the Yankees never lack.
The team with 94 regular-season wins, fourth most in baseball, wouldn't bite at any of the excuses softballed their way. The Twins wouldn't say they're cursed whenever they play the Yankees in the postseason; they're not victims of bad luck, or doomed because of a tiny payroll (it was nearly $100 million this season).
After the final out, Danny Valencia flying to Brett Gardner, Mariano Rivera a slice of perfection even without the possibility of a save, some of the Twins stayed in their dugout, watching glumly as the Yankees celebrated. Actually, the Yankees reacted as if they had just won a key series in August, happy but not crazy. They are the Yankees, after all, and they have been here before.
And don't the Twins know it.
"We did a lot of positive things this season," Duensing said. "It just seems we can't shake these guys. They deserve the champagne they're drinking."
Down the hall, the little bubbly that had been sprayed had already cooled, another October for the Yankees starting pretty much the way they've grown accustomed.