I knew it. I knew Carl Pavano was going to pitch like that!
In the end it didn’t matter, though – “it’s okay,” a friend told me afterwards, “that man can’t hurt you any more” – because although Pavano was great tonight, Andy Pettitte was just a bit better; and while the usually great Joe Nathan faltered, the Yankees’ bullpen held the line. So it was a 4-1 win for New York tonight, and the Yanks are headed to the ALCS for the first time since 2004. Of course that’s nothing in the scheme of things, not compared to how long other teams have been waiting, but I’m still thrilled to have really engaging baseball going for at least a little while longer, as it gets colder and darker outside.
Pavano had absolutely everything working tonight, throwing strikes with movement, and provoking some terrible-looking at-bats from the Yankees – there were awkward swings and misses left and right. In the third inning Melky Cabrera removed the specter of a no-hitter with a dinky little infield hit that, had they been playing on real grass, probably would’ve been an out; it was not deeply encouraging. Hideki Matsui’s fifth-inning single and Derek Jeter’s sixth-inning double were more like it, but went nowhere.
Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte was putting on a retro-chic performance. Pettitte has pitched the equivalent of a full healthy season in postseason games, a phantom 16th season; he’s had some bad starts along the way, mixed in with the good, but it’s still deeply reassuring to see him out there – brim pulled low, shadowed eyes staring in over the glove, almost indistinguishable in that pose from the 1996 version. He was perfect through four innings, and very good thereafter.
Still, the Twins scored first, as they did in the first two games of the series, and of course it was Joe Mauer who drove in their lone run, singling home Denard Span in the sixth inning with two outs. But Pettitte recovered to strike out Michael Cuddyer, and the Yankees wasted no time in getting him a lead.
I’m not sure whether Pavano started to tire in the seventh, or whether the Yankees just started seeing his pitches better the third time through the lineup. Either way, first Alex Rodriguez – by now the clear MVP of the series – hit a solid home run to right field to tie the score; one batter later, Jorge Posada added another solo shot. In the space of a couple minutes the Yankees had gone ahead by a run, and despite his excellent performance, that was enough stick Pavano with the L.
Joba Chamberlain took over for Pettitte with one out in the seventh, and got the job done. Phil Hughes then came on for the eighth and did the same, though he had a slightly stickier time. He was greeted by a Nick Punto double, and the Denard Span single that followed could have been the start of a bigger jam – but luckily for the Yankees Punto was not paying attention to his third base coach. He ran well past the bag thinking Span’s hit had reached the outfield, realized his mistake, screeched to a halt and lunged back towards the base; but by then Jeter had corralled the ball (a play I’m not sure he makes last year), spotted Punto, and thrown home to Jorge Posada, who threw to A-Rod, who tagged Punto out at third. An odd play, and a credit to the Yankee infielders, but one made possible by more sloppy baserunning from Minnesota.
I felt bad for Punto; he does hustle like crazy, every time I’ve seen him play, and it’s not his fault that people are always overpraising him as gritty and scrappy. This was out of character, and he spent the rest of the game looking stricken. But so it goes. Hughes got Orlando Cabrera to fly out, but with Joe Mauer coming up as the go-ahead run, Joe Girardi did the only sane thing: went out to the mound and signaled for Mariano Rivera. (Had this same situation arisen in the seventh inning, I don’t like to think about what might have happened).
Mariano Rivera vs Joe Mauer: best hitter in the league against the best pitcher, and if you can’t get excited about that then I don’t know what to tell you. Mauer’s had an excellent Division Series, providing the lion’s share of the Twins’ offense, and when he wins his MVP it will be thoroughly well deserved. But the result of his last plate appearance tonight was almost anticlimactic, the quintessential Rivera outcome: Mauer’s bat snapped in half just above the handle, and he grounded out to first.
The Yankees tacked on a pair of runs in the top of the ninth, loading the bases as Twins pitchers walked Teixeira, A-Rod, and Matsui in succession, and Joe Nathan then allowed singles to Posada and Cano. Rivera took care of the bottom of the ninth with fairly minimal drama, because that’s what he does, and my god will New York fans miss him when he’s gone, but let’s not think about that right now.
I like the Twins – I like Bert Blyleven, Gardenhire, Mauer, Morneau, Span (natch), Carlos Gomez, Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, even Little Nicky Punto as the great Batgirl used to call him. And I like their fans, who mostly seem to manage being passionate without being dicks. This series was closer than the 3-0 sweep would suggest, and had they beaten the Yankees I would’ve pulled for them the rest of the way.
I do not feel this way about the Yankees’ next opponent.
Commence worrying about the Angels in 5… 4… 3… 2…