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      F I E L D  T R I P S

SEPTEMBER 30, 2003

September 29, 2003: American League Divisional Series
Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium

History's Bunk

Consider yourself warned. The Gang of Four weren't singing about short postseason series when they wrote "History's Bunk," but they may as well have been. As I pointed out prior to the opening of the Yankees-Twins series on Tuesday, the Yanks had beaten the Twins in 13 straight games over the past two seasons, and Game One starter Mike Mussina owned a 20-2 record against them in his career, all of which meant very little. The Minnesota Twins apparently paid close attention, because they survived the early departure of starter Johan Santana to beat the sloppy Yanks 3-1, getting on the good foot in a series in which they arrived as heavy underdogs.

That special October aura was lacking from Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, in part because it was still September and in part because the sun was shining. Major League Baseball and the Fox network deemed the Chicago Cubs' trip to the postseason more worthy of prime-time coverage on the postseason's opening day than the been-there-done-that Yanks. So it was with some amount of grumbling that many of the Yankee faithful filed into the Stadium. Mothers cradled infants or escorted schoolchildren while their fathers remained in their offices, hostages in neckties.

I'd been to eight postseason games at Yankee Stadium, but never one in the daytime. Hell, the only weekday afternoon game involving the Yanks that I could recall was the Chuck Knoblauch vaporlock incident. Shudder. Still, I decided that complaining about having tickets to a daytime postseason game was like complaining about the color of the plate my filet mignon was sitting upon. Shut up and deal.

As the game started, Mussina got into trouble immediately, allowing a leadoff double to sparkplug Shannon Stewart. It was Stewart's arrival from Toronto which keyed the Twins' 46-23 second-half run, and here he was, making trouble from the outset. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire (the 2002 Futility Infielder of the Year) elected to play for the early run, as Luis Rivas sacrificed Stewart to third. But the Moose got loose, inducing an easy comebacker from Doug Mientkiewicz, and a groundout from Matt LeCroy, ending the threat.

Mussina rolled through the second, but found more trouble in the third. With one out, Cristian Guzman singled to right, and then on a hit-and-run, Stewart singled to left, with Guzman challenging Yankee leftfielder Hideki Matsui's weak arm by heading for third. From my seat (third row of the upper deck, between third base and home), it looked as though Matsui's throw was high and wide of third baseman Aaron Boone, delaying the tag. In a cell phone conversation, a friend said that Guzman still looked to be out, but I haven't seen a replay as I write this (the New York Times confirmed my perception). Anyway, Guzman then scored on a sac fly by Rivas for the game's first run.

Meanwhile, Santana kept the Yanks in check, giving up only a pair of inconsequential two-out singles in the first two innings. But the young Twin began bouncing a number of curveballs in the third, walking Nick Johnson and Derek Jeter back-to-back with two outs. He recovered to strike out Jason Giambi, but the 27-pitch inning clearly showed that he was vulnerable.

The Yanks squandered their best chance against Santana in the fourth. With one out, Bernie Williams drove one to deep right centerfield, but he slipped while rounding first, falling flat on the basepath before recovering to retreat. A 390-foot singe. Had Williams not fallen, the Yanks would have had a 106-RBI hitter holding an .892 OPS with runners in scoring positon coming to the plate in Matsui. But with Bernie only on first, the grounder-happy Matsui's weakness came to the forefront, and it was no surprise when he bounced into a 4-6-3 double play. A frustrating inning for the Yanks.

But the Yanks fortunes looked as though they might turn. Santana had thrown only 59 pitches, and had yet to give up a run, so it was quite a surprise to see the Twins summon journeyman Rick Reed from the bullpen, a man with an ERA exactly two runs higher than the man he replaced (5.07 to 3.07). No explanation was immediately given, though my cellular lifeline informed me that the TV announcers had given leg cramps as the cause.

Reed fell behind the Yanks' #8 and #9 hitters, Aaron Boone and Juan Rivera, but got them both on grounders to shortstop. He fell behind 3-1 to Alfonso Soriano, who lashed a double to right center. Ron Gardenhire then called upon J.C. Romero, who stayed in form by falling behind Nick Johnson. On the 3-0 pitch, Soriano stole third. But Johnson, in the midst of an 0-for-18 slide, grounded out weakly to Mientkiewicz, wasting another opportunity.

The sixth inning was the Yanks' real undoing, and again Bernie Williams was at the center of it. With one out and a man on first, Torii Hunter poked one into the right-center gap. Williams looked to cut it off, but missed badly and ended up chasing the ball to the wall. He relayed to Soriano, who airmailed the ball over Boone's head as Hunter slid. Torii quickly popped up from his slide and scored to run it to 3-0. In Little League they'd have called it a home run, but the official scorer called it a triple and an error, and that was still extremely generous.

The Yanks continued to waste opportunities. A Jeter leadofff single went uncapitalized in the sixth, while the Yanks put the first two runners on in the seventh. Matsui walked, chasing Romero, and Boone greeted smoke-throwin' Latroy Hawkins with a single up the middle. Pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra hit into a fielder's choice, with Matsui taking third. But Hawkins blew some high-90s heat past both Soriano and Johnson to escape the jam. Hawkins struck out two more in the eighth for good measure.

With Mussina done for the day affter seven laborious innings, the Twins threatened again in the eighth. Jeff Nelson came in and couldn't find the plate, walking Matt LeCroy, an act for which he was roundly booed. Felix Heredia came on and got Jacque Jones to ground out, advancing LeCroy. The Yanks elected to intentionally walk Hunter, and a Koskie single loaded the bases. Heredia fell behind Pierzynski, but the Twins catcher grounded back to the pitcher, who started a 1-2-3 double play.

Having exhausted just about every manner of not scoring in the previous eight innings, the Yanks ran out of excuses in the ninth. Facing closer Everyday Eddie Guardado, Williams led off with a single, and then Matsui hit a deep drive down the leftfield line that looked as though it might carry out. But Stewart made a leaping grab as he ran into the wall, just out of reach of several Jeffery Maier wannabes, robbing Godzilla of a homer. Given where I was sitting, I couldn't see the catch; it was only later when I saw the replay how close Matsui came to cutting the lead to 3-2, and how fine a play the Twins leftfielder made. Damn.

But it wasn't over yet. Boone doubled down the leftfield line, with Williams taking third and bringing the tying run to the plate in the form of Ruben Sierrea. Alas, Sierra popped out to short rightfield, taking the Yanks down to their last out. Soriano laced a 3-1 pitch to right, scoring Williams to finally put the Yanks on the board. But it was too little, too late, as Johnson fell to 0-for-21 by grounding to third. Ballgame to the Twins, thanks to Stewart, their bullpen, and a sloppy game by the Yanks: ten men left on base — five of those in scoring position, three at third base — one baserunning gaffe, and one error that should have been two. Ugh.

The Yanks now find themselves in an unexpected hole, and with the odds against them. Since the advent of the Wild Card in 1995, the team that's won the first game has won 22 out of 32 division series. The Yanks have bucked the trend in each of the past three years, losing to Anaheim last year after taking the first game, and taking two series from Oakland after dropping the first. But history's bunk. That's why they play the games.

Final Score: Twins 3, Yanks 1. Two commemorative programs, one hot dog, one stolen home run, and one less-than-auspicious beginning to a postseason. BOX SCORE