Choke on this, haters! A-Rod has thrown the playoff monkey off his back. After the Twinkies took a late-game lead against Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees faced the prospect of heading back to the haunted Metrodome with a tied series when the alleged big-moment-shirking third baseman came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. With Mark Teixiera on first and Joe Nathan — the most historically reliable AL closer not named Mariano — on the mound, A-Rod crushed a ball far over the right-center wall to tie the game. And after some narrow escapes by both teams in extras, Teixiera finished the Twins off, ‘09 Yankees-style, with a line-drive walk-off homer in the eleventh. Cue the pie from starting pitcher A.J. Burnett.
Even after A-Rod’s blast, there was a lot of excitement left. Nathan recovered to retire the side in the ninth, but after giving up a single to Jorge Posada in the tenth he let pinch-runner Brett Gardner steal second and then moved him to third by throwing a ball into center field on one of the worst pickoff attempts this correspondent has ever seen. An intentional walk, a pitching change, and another walk later, Johnny Damon seemed set to knock a single past a drawn-in infield for the win. But Damon lined softly to short, and Gardner, making the same simple base-running mistake that helped the Tigers lose their play-in game with the Twins on Tuesday, got doubled off third.
These kind of screw-ups were common tonight, even for the umpires. The next inning, a Joe Mauer ground-rule double that had hit Melky Cabrera’s glove in fair territory and still fallen a good half-foot inside the line was ruled foul by the left-field umpire (a position that’s actually added in the postseason for the purpose of avoiding such mistakes). The Twins nonetheless managed to load the bases with no outs….but still didn’t score. Delmon Young lined a shot right at Texeira, Carlos Gomez grounded weakly out to same, and Brendan Harris flew out to center.
Baseball’s pundit class will always tell you the Twins’ strength is “fundamental baseball,” but the northmen have made basic mistakes throughout this series. The Nathan pickoff aside, they missed a big chance in the fourth inning. With two outs and runners on first and second in a scoreless game, Carlos Gomez suffered a flashback to his time in the Mets organization and tried to go from first to third on a single to right-center. He slipped coming around second and was tagged out scrambling back to the base before Delmon Young had crossed the plate, so no run was scored.
That missed opportunity seemed as if it would be crucial; the game was a pitcher’s duel between A.J. Burnett and Nick Blackburn, and given the strength of the Yanks’ lineup and bullpen, they seemed to have the advantage once the starters were out of the game. That happened in the sixth inning, with Joe Girardi and Ron Gardenhire each giving a quick hook after their starters had given up a mere one run each. But in the eighth, the worm turned — with a walk and three quick singles, the Twins had improbably taken a lead off of Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera. Posada, Jeter, and Damon couldn’t muster any playoff-veteran magic in the eighth, and the stadium crowd was almost silent.
But then Nathan suffered a breakdown. He gave up a sharp single to Mark Teixeira and seemed afraid of even getting near Rodriguez, missing three breaking pitches outside before getting a fourth-pitch strike that A-Rod was taking all the way. With no apparent confidence in his fastball, Nathan decided to risk a hit off it rather than move Teixeira into scoring position with another errant slider, which we can now say was probably the wrong decision. The Twins were this close to making a series of it, but now they’re just the first victims of New Yankee Stadium postseason mojo.