The Yankees got what they needed and more on Friday night, thumping the Twins 8-4 to move within one game of advancing to the ALCS, giving themselves a crucial cushion against likely Cy Young-winner Johan Santana in Game Four.
Before a minor scare in the ninth inning, where the Twins loaded the bases with nobody out and forced Rivera in to stop the rally, the Yankees had been in control for almost the entire game. After Jacque Jones homered to give Minnesota the lead in the first, the Yankees strung together five straight two-out singles to score three runs and take a lead they’d never relinquish. It stayed that way until the sixth inning before the Yankees dropped the hammer, scoring four runs off a two-run shot by Bernie Williams and a two-run single by Derek Jeter, adding one last, lucky insurance run in the seventh when Hideki Matsui’s fly ball popped out of the glove of Torii Hunter as he made another great catch and ran into the wall, and landed over the fence for a Home Run.
The sixth and seventh decided the game (though the lucky home run and two Twins baserunning errors ultimately helped keep it from getting too close), but until Williams’ homer, the outcome was very much in doubt.
For six innings, Kevin Brown held the Twins’ lineup in check, limiting them to six singles, a double and Jones’ homer, with no walks and only the one run scored. He threw 84 pitches and may well have thrown more if the game had been closer. He only threw 22 pitches out of the strike zone, and while he only struck out one batter, he walked not a single one, and only went to three balls on two batters. It was not a dominating performance, but it was a very good one. It was the third good one they’ve gotten in a row — so much for the Yankees’ lousy starting pitching.
But that this very good start came from Kevin Brown, who is coming back from problems of his own making, is such an enormous relief to the Yankees. Brown is now lined up to start a potential Game Two Wednesday against the Red Sox, with certainly no hesitation from Joe Torre, and he’ll look to redeem himself for his horrid start against them two Sundays ago, and more importantly, redeem himself for his foolishness.
Because the game was a blowout, only some, not all, is forgiven with Brown. If he can repeat his performance against Pedro Martinez, should the Yankees get that chance, all will be forgiven. Should Brown sustain the level he showed last night and last Saturday in Toronto, should Jon Lieber and Mike Mussina continue to pitch as they have since the end of August, and especially if Javier Vazquez can find anything near the form he showed in Montreal and earlier this season, or if Orlando Hernandez regains his arm strength and returns to form, the Yankees’ rotation suddenly becomes nearly as scary as their lineup is. They would be every bit as formidable an opponent as St. Louis and Boston, and their World Series chances have to become much better.
But before they can win the World Series, or even get there, they have to advance past the Twins to play the Red Sox in the ALCS. The Yankees must be wary of dismissing the Twins, who are in a tough spot but hardly dead yet. Minnesota has to be heavily favored to win this afternoon, even if Javier Vazquez pitches like when he was an Expo. Johan Santana was off his game four days ago, but, with a little help from the Yankees’ baserunners and his defense, was able to shut out New York for seven innings. Everyone certainly expects him to be better this time around, and the Yankees’ might have trouble putting any runs on the board again. If the series goes five, the Yankees are certainly favored with Mike Mussina on full rest against Brad Radke on short rest, but Radke is a very good pitcher who had only given up three runs in two starts to the Yankees before getting smacked around on Wednesday. An upset is very plausible.
But the Yankees aren’t going to look past the Twins; Joe Torre is too good a leader of men to allow that to happen. If this series goes five, it will be because the Twins played well, not because the Yankees pulled off the road for a nap.
No matter who advances, they will be playing the Red Sox in the ALCS starting Tuesday. By sweeping the Twins, the Red Sox can set their rotation up just as they want it, throwing Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez out on the road right away. This outcome hurts Minnesota more than it does the Yankees, as the Twins have a much more front-heavy rotation than New York. With Minnesota having to go five to win, Johan Santana can’t pitch until Game Two at the very earliest, and Brad Radke can’t pitch until Game Three, forcing the Twins to pitch Carlos Silva in the opener, and — gulp — Kyle “5.34 ERA” Lohse in Game Four.
If the Yankees prevail in five, they can start Jon Lieber in Game One — not the ideal opponent for Schilling, but he did take a no-hitter into the seventh against Boston in a crucial game in September — with Kevin Brown in Game Two and Mike Mussina in Game Three, needing to use Javier Vazquez only once in Game Four. Should the Yankees finish the series today, they’ll be able to start Mussina in Game One. That rotation hardly negates Boston’s starting two, but in a potential Game Seven the Yankees might have Mussina against Bronson Arroyo, though of course all the pitchers but Pedro and Brown will be available in the bullpen.
But that’s looking ahead, of course — something teams should never do, but writers are allowed to do… but it probably isn’t a wise idea anyway. For now, it’s Vazquez against Santana, the most vital game of the season for the Twins, and still an important one for the Yankees, too. Minnesota’s made this postseason comeback before, can they do it again?