Friday, March 23, 2012

BREAKING: Twins were psyched out by Yankees in playoffs

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports writes that Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer have confirmed what we all suspected. That during the ALDS in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, the Twins were intimidated by the Yankees and were, as Heyman put it, beaten before they started:

Hunter recalled one 2004 ALDS game the Twins lost where they had a runner on third with one out down a run against the great Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, and Twins manager called on a young righty-hitting Lew Ford to bat against Rivera, and Torre recalled Ford turning down the pinch-hit assignment. "You need a righty hitter against Rivera with his cutter,'' Hunter recalled. But according to Hunter, Ford shook his head no. So Gardenhoire turned to another kid, Jason Kubel, a lefthanded hitter, who Hunter recalled getting jammed. "Kubel wasn't afraid, but he's a lefty hitter,'' Hunter said.

I'm sure most fans thought something like this. Those Twins teams were very good, but when they came to the Stadium, a lot of weird things would happen and the Yanks would pull out yet another tight victory before rolling on to the ALCS. While standing in to face Mariano Rivera is an unenviable task, I think it's pretty crazy that Lew Ford would turn down a pinch-hitting assignment, let alone in a playoff game. I attended several of these games and I've decided to try and find the game that Hunter is talking about.

Looking at Jason Kubel's postseason gamelog, he made two appearances in the 2004 ALDS. One was a pinch-hit appearance in Game Four in which he doubled off Tom Gordon in the eighth inning of a 5-5 game. He started at DH and hit sixth in Game Two at Yankee Stadium, going 0-for-6 with a game-low -0.36 WPA.

Johan Santana outdueled Mike Mussina 2-0 to give the Twins the opener the night before. The Yankees led the second game 5-3 in the top of the eighth when the Twins rallied with one out against Tom Gordon. Jacque Jones reached on a strikeout/wild pitch and moved to second on a single by Hunter. Joe Torre then turned to Rivera for a five-out save.

Justin Morneau hit Mo's first pitch for a single to bring home Jones and cut the lead to 5-4. Corey Koskie worked a great eight-pitch AB and served a ground-rule double to plate Hunter and shockingly tie the game.

Now comes the at bat in question. Hunter misremembers slightly, saying the Twins were down a run when he had actually just scored the tying run himself. The Twins were poised to take the lead with runners at second and third and only one out. Hunter says Ford "just shook his head no" when Gardenhire called on the righty to pinch hit.

Hunter also says Kubel got jammed, when in fact, he struck out on three pitches. The next batter, Cristian Guzman, tapped out softy back to Rivera to strand the runners and end the inning.

The score held at 5-5 into the 12th when Hunter cracked a solo homer off Tanyon Sturtze that put the Twins three outs away from taking a 2-0 series lead back to the Metrodome.

Of course, it was not to be. Joe Nathan, 32 pitches into his outing, began his third inning of work. With one out, Nathan walked Miguel Cairo on five pitches and Derek Jeter on four pitches. Alex Rodriguez was next and he came through with a ground-rule double. Cairo scored to tie the game and Jeter was now 90 feet away representing the winning run. Five years later, Rodriguez would famously get the best of Nathan in the ALDS again.

Back to 2004. Nathan intentionally walked Gary Sheffield to load the bases and set up the double play with Hideki Matsui coming up. Gardenhire called on the southpaw J.C. Romero to replace Nathan. Matsui hit the first pitch into shallow right. Jones made the catch, but his throw home was not close as Jeter scampered home with the winning run. The series was tied and the Yankees went to Minnesota and took the next two games to advance.

History repeated itself. The year before, the Twins took Game One in New York before dropping three straight. That comeback began on my 17th birthday, when the Yankees broke a 1-1 tie with three runs in the bottom of the seventh to win Game Two. I was at that game and thoroughly enjoyed Gardenhire's postgame excuse that Ronan Tynan's rendition of "God Bless America" took too long and got his team out of rhythm.

The Yankees swept Minnesota in 2009 en route to the World Series crown and again in 2010. They won 12 of 14 games over the four matchups, including all seven games played in Minnesota.

Was this all because of that famous MYSTIQUE and AURA? Of course not. The Yankees had home-field advantage in the first three sets and here are the win totals of the two clubs for each season:

2003: NYY 101 MIN 90
2004: NYY 101 MIN 92
2009: NYY 103 MIN 87
2010: NYY 95  MIN 94

The Yankees were the better team in each of the four seasons, even holding a better record as a wild card team than the Central-winning Twins in 2010.

Having said that, there was definitely a Murphy's Law factor in all of these series. The Twins held leads in seven of the 12 games they lost. There were a ton of goofy things that all went the Yankees' way, from baserunning miscues in big spots, to Joe Mauer's double-that-wasn't, to Joe Nathan turning human.

As for the 2004 ALDS, this Yankee fan kinda hopes Minnesota had won and spared New York from the 3-0 collapse against Boston in the next round.

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