So Close

The Twins were so close.

Minnesota survived a bad start from Brad Radke, their offense found a way to score some runs, they did the impossible and came back against Mariano Rivera, their bullpen threw scoreless innings, and they got the Yankees to bring Tanyon Sturtze and his 5.47 ERA into a tie game. And yet, as they have so many times, New York hung around until they could deliver the knockout punch, getting to Joe Nathan in his third inning of work.

There will no doubt be a lot of people who find fault with Ron Gardenhire sending Nathan back out to pitch the 12th inning, but I’m not one of them. While the complaints may center on Gardenhire letting Nathan pitch to Alex Rodriguez, that’s simply more second-guessing and after-the-fact opinion forming than even I’m comfortable with. As far as I’m concerned, the only real decision for Gardenhire came before the start of the inning.

Coming into the 12th, Nathan had thrown 32 pitches without giving up a hit, while striking out the last two batters he faced in the 11th. While asking him to begin an inning with 32 pitches is certainly not a situation Nathan has been in very often, he was pitching very well, it’s not an outlandish number of pitches, and it’s a decision I have no problem with. If you want to disagree with that move, that’s one thing, but once you send Nathan out to begin the 12th and he pitches to the leadoff man, John Olerud, you’re pretty much stuck with him whether he struggles or not.

Nathan walking Miguel Cairo after he struck Olerud out was the first sign that his control was fading, but there’s no way Gardenhire could have made a move at that point to bring in J.C. Romero, a lefty, to face the portion of the Yankees’ lineup that goes Derek Jeter-Rodriguez-Gary Sheffield, all righties and all guys who feasted on southpaws this year. Gardenhire did have a right-handed pitcher available in rookie Jesse Cain, but I’m not sure that’s the spot I want him making his postseason debut in.

So Gardenhire let Nathan go as far as he could, or perhaps more accurately as far he could while still being a better option than either Romero or Crain. Nathan stayed out there past his comfort zone and began struggling with his control, following up his walk of Cairo by walking Jeter on four pitches. At that point it was clear that Nathan was completely out of gas, but none of the other options were very appealing.

With Rodriguez up, the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first, do you bring in Romero when Rodriguez hit .311/.422/.659 against lefties this year and the next batter, Sheffield, hit .314/.423/.550 against southpaws? Do you bring Crain, with 27 innings of big-league experience, into the most pressure-packed situation of the season, with absolutely zero margin for error?

Like I said, the only real decision was made before a pitch was thrown in the inning. You could argue that Gardenhire should have brought Romero in to start the inning by pitching to Olerud, and then brought Crain in to pitch to the Cairo-Jeter-Rodriguez-Sheffield group of righties. The problem I have with that sort of thinking is that using Romero for just one batter is a huge waste when you don’t know how long the game could potentially go, not to mention the fact that Nathan had no trouble getting Olerud out anyway. And then is a fresh Crain really better to face those four straight righties than Nathan was, even having thrown 37 pitches?

Gardenhire’s non-moves look horrible now, of course, as Rodriguez, who struggled in clutch situations for most of the year, came through against Nathan with a game-tying ground-rule double just past the outstretched glove of Shannon Stewart in left-center. The ball bouncing over the fence gave the Twins a temporary stay of execution, as Jeter was held up at third when he almost certainly could have coasted home with the winning run had the ball stayed in the park. With men on second and third and one out, Gardenhire had Nathan intentionally walk Sheffield to load the bases and then brought Romero in to face Hideki Matsui, getting both a lefty-lefty matchup and a ground ball pitcher facing a ground ball hitter.

It was about as favorable a matchup as the Twins could possibly have asked for in that situation, but Matsui was able to hit a line drive to shallow right field, where Jacque Jones was playing what could be described as “really deep second base” in order to have a chance at throwing Jeter out at the plate. Jones made the catch and then, strangely, targeted his throw at the cutoff man, rather than home plate. Matthew LeCroy cut the throw off about halfway to home and relayed it to Pat Borders, but by the time the ball reached the third glove of the play, Jeter had scored and the Yankees had tied the series at one game apiece.

The loss is a massive blow to the Twins, as they not only had the game in hand, they had the series in hand as well. Had they been up two games to none, heading back to Minnesota, they would have had to simply avoid a three-game losing streak. Instead, the series is tied and there’s a very good chance New York will take a 2-1 lead with Carlos Silva getting the call in Game 3 (yet another reason why leaving Nathan in wasn’t a bad move, since it’s unlikely he’d have gotten a meaningful appearance in Game 3 anyway).

If it does get to 2-1 New York, the Twins will likely go with Johan Santana on short rest in Game 4 and Radke on short rest in Game 5. All of which means they will not only have to win two games in a row, they’ll have to win a series-deciding game at Yankee Stadium, with a guy who gave up five runs last night, and he’ll be on short rest. So while last night was “only one game,” the impact on the series goes far beyond that. It changed everything.

Some other notes on Game 2, which may also be called the most stressful and ultimately excruciating four hours of my year …

  • Gardenhire went with Jason Kubel as his designated hitter and #6 hitter against Jon Lieber, benching Lew Ford, who DH’d and batted sixth in Game 1. In theory, I think the move made a lot of sense, as Lieber was significantly worse against left-handed hitters this year, allowing them to hit .346/.358/.524, while he held righties to a measly .250/.266/.348.

    However, the one thing that bugs me with Ford’s situation is that he seems to get jerked around by Gardenhire quite a bit, whether it’s his position defensively or his spot in the lineup. In Game 1 he started but had to DH while an inferior defender, Stewart, played left field, and in Game 2 he didn’t get to play at all. It’s an interesting way to treat a guy who was the most valuable position player on the team this year.

    Of course, the decision looks awful in hindsight, as Kubel went 0-for-6 with two strikeouts and left five runners on base. He also had perhaps the worst at-bat I’ve ever seen. Facing Rivera with the game tied at five and runners on second and third with one out in the eighth inning, Kubel took a first-pitch strike right down the middle of the plate and then swung at consecutive pitches that were literally above his eyes. Just a brutal effort in a crucial situation.

  • The front two-thirds of the Yankees’ lineup is pretty incredible: Jeter-Rodriguez-Sheffield-Matsui-Bernie Williams-Jorge Posada. Those six are, in my opinion, five legitimate Hall of Fame candidates and one of the greatest players in Japanese baseball history. And, without a doubt, the scariest guy in the bunch is Sheffield, who, along with that intimidating bat waggle, looks like his goal at the plate is to actually hurt the baseball.
  • My favorite quote of the night, courtesy of Joe Morgan: “Ron Gardenhire said he thinks Justin Morneau will be a big-time power hitter.” Quite a brave prediction from Gardenhire about a 23-year-old who hit 19 homers in 280 at-bats. Incidentally, I’d like to let everyone know that I think Barry Bonds will be a good baseball player.
  • I give Morgan a lot of crap — and rightfully so in most cases — but I really love when he says “little slide piece.”
  • Last night’s nominee for Most Startling Revelation of the Postseason: according to Morgan and Jon Miller, Gardenhire is now a fan of Outkast. No doubt a very proud day for Big Boi and Andre 3000.
  • While the Twins caught a break on a ground-rule double that ended up not mattering, the Yankees caught a break in a very similar situation earlier in the game and it almost certainly made a huge difference. Down 5-4 in the eighth, the Twins had runners on first and third with one out. With Rivera on the mound and Corey Koskie at the plate, pinch-runner Luis Rivas took off running from first base on a 3-2 pitch and Koskie lined a double down the left field line.

    Torii Hunter strolled home with the tying run from third base and Rivas could have jogged home too, but the ball bounced over the fence and, just like Jeter in the bottom of the 12th, Rivas had to hold up at third. While Jeter ended up scoring the game-winning run anyway, the Twins failed to get Rivas in with the go-ahead run, as Kubel had his aforementioned awful at-bat and then Cristian Guzman grounded out to the pitcher for the final out of the inning. Instead of it being 6-5 Twins heading into the bottom of the eighth, they had to settle for a tie game.

    It was a great at-bat from Koskie, who got behind 0-2 immediately and then worked the count to 3-2 by fouling off a couple pitches and showing a ton of patience and a great eye. The end result was a run-scoring double and Rivera’s third career postseason blown save, but it could have been even more. Normally I’d say it seems like those bounces always go the Yankees’ way, but they had the same bad bounce in the 12th inning, in nearly the same situation, and just kept pounding away until they scored.

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