The Most Important Game Of The Year

In early September, as the Red Sox were surging, and the Yankees were … not surging, Kevin Brown had a decent game against the Orioles. He wasn’t dominant, he wasn’t horrible, but he was pretty good and kept the team in the game. Unfortunately, the Yankees couldn’t get their offense working, and Brown went into the clubhouse with the team trailing, and ultimately losing.

Brown felt he had failed, that he hadn’t done enough to help the team, and he probably felt that the team hadn’t done enough to help him that night, either. With the Red Sox winning again and pulling closer to the Yankees for the AL East lead, all the frustrations of the past few weeks found their expression in one stupid, unthinking moment.

Brown let his frustration boil over and unleashed it on the nearest inanimate object, which unfortunately was a fairly immovable one, too. Brown’s left fist crushed against the clubhouse wall, breaking two bones in his hand, and casting further doubt upon the Yankees’ ability to hang on in the AL East and succeed in the playoffs.

At the time, winning was important, but not vitally important. The Yankees were seeing their AL East lead evaporate, but it still seemed pretty certain that they would hold onto a playoff spot in any case. Since the lost ground was due to Boston’s surge and not any huge slump by the Yankees, things could very conceivably turn around before the end of the month, and the team could hang onto the division title. And that’s what happened.

Now it’s October, and winning is vitally important. Unlike the regular season, there are no losses that you can brush off. You can’t look at the scoreboard and be relieved that your rival in the standings lost, too, because every loss is matched by a rival’s win. Every win brings you closer to victory, every loss brings you closer to defeat, there are no days that even out. It’s a whole different animal.

The nature of the postseason also lends itself to short memory. How you won or lost the day before doesn’t help you at all today, nor does it lessen the importance of playing well today. There are no “house money” games, where you can give your starters a day off. John Flaherty ain’t getting any starts this October unless Jorge Posada gets hurt.

By winning Wednesday, the Yankees pulled themselves back from the brink, but they didn’t make their task any easier. They still need to win two more games, and with one of the three against Johan Santana, that almost certainly means they need to win Games 3 and 5.

In Game 3, shadowboxer Kevin Brown gets the ball for only his third start since coming back from his broken hand. His first start in Fenway couldn’t have been much worse, as the Red Sox knocked him out of the game in the first inning after adding several dents to the Green Monster. His second start couldn’t have been much better, as he allowed only one hit and an unearned run against the Blue Jays.

If the series gets to Game 5, the Yankees will probably have a fully rested Mike Mussina against Brad Radke on short rest, a decided advantage. But to get there, they almost certainly need to win Game 3. To do that, they’ll need a quality outing from Brown. The Yankees destroyed Carlos Silva the only time they’ve ever faced him, in August at the Metrodome, scoring seven runs in five innings, but if they expect that to happen again they might be in for a rude awakening. Silva may well be terrible again, but even the best pitchers have bad days, and Silva may have had just that.

The Yankees probably don’t need Brown to shut out the Twins, or hold them to fewer than three runs. But they do need five or six solid innings. If they don’t get that, the series swings back to the Twins — and it’s probably not swinging back. The Yankees can’t lose this game and have a reasonable chance of surviving. It’s all on the line for them tonight, and they have no choice but to get the job done.

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