MINNEAPOLIS --- About forty-five minutes after Mariano Rivera induced the weak groundout from Brendan Harris that ended this American League Division Series, a few Twins fans lingered in some hidden corner of the Metrodome, testing, for one last time, the stadium's acoustics. "Let's go, Twinkies!" they yelled, their voices echoing throughout the ballpark, well after workers had dug up home plate and had begun to pull the advertisements down from the outfield wall. It was the last time that those words will ever be shouted here.
Baseball will never again be played in the Metrodome because on Sunday night the Yankees did what the Yankees do, and the Twins didn't do what the Twins are supposed to do. The Twins are supposed to be the most fundamentally sound of organizations, but on Sunday, for the second game in a row, they were doomed by a crushing base-running error. On Friday in New York, it was young Carlos Gomez who was tagged out after overrunning second base a split second before Delmon Young could score a run that would have proven crucial.
On Sunday in Minnesota, it was Nick Punto -- a much more experienced player than Gomez, and one whose scrappy style in many ways embodies his organization's ethos -- who thought it might be a good idea to run through his third base coach's stop sign and try to score from second on a Denard Span infield single, with no outs and a 2-1 eighth inning deficit. Punto soon thought better of it, but it was too late, and he was tagged out as he tried to slide back into third. "This is a game where you can go from hero to goat real quick," said a red-eyed Punto, who just five days ago made a spectacular run-saving play in the 12th inning of the Twins' play-in game against the Tigers. "Tonight I was the goat."
As Punto replayed his blunder over and over in his mind's eye, the Yankees jumped up and down for a few moments in a huddle behind the pitchers' mound after Rivera locked down the series, in what seemed to be perhaps the most routine postseason celebration ever conducted. There were no blown calls in this game, as there had been in Game 2, although home plate umpire Mark Wegner's strike zone at times seemed to be George Soros-ian in its generosity. That high-and-wide zone helped Carl Pavano, the former Yankee free agent bust whom New York fans booed lustily when he was introduced prior to Game 1 -- and perhaps the only man alive who can call a four-year stretch in which he earned $39.95 million "a black period in my career" -- hold the Yankees scoreless through six and a third innings. Pavano ultimately struck out nine hitters, a Twins postseason record.
But the Yankees never pressed, and it seemed to be only a matter of time until their superior talent would help them break through. It happened in the seventh, when Alex Rodriguez crushed a 92 mile-per-hour fastball 374 feet over the rightfield wall. They took the lead two batters later, when Jorge Posada sent a 91-mile-per-hour fastball over the leftfield wall. Then, after one more out from the magnificent Andy Pettitte (6.1 innings, 3 hits, 1 earned run), manager Joe Girardi called upon his bullpen to close things out -- which, with some help from Punto, it did.
"Just kind of the way you draw it up," Girardi said as he watched his players douse each other in champagne and Budweiser tallboys in the visitors' clubhouse after the game. "And Alex had an unbelievable series. Game 2, a monster hit. Game 1, big hits. Tonight, monster hit. That's why he's so great. He's such a talented player, and he was a big part of the reason we won here."
General manager Brian Cashman took that thought a step further: "We didn't hit as a club, outside of Alex," Cashman said. "We don't sweep without him."
Rodriguez was indeed the hero of this series: he hit .455 (5-for-11) with two home runs, three runs scored and six RBIs. But he is only the most talented and most highly paid member of an extremely talented and highly paid club, one that can simply sit back and wait for good things to happen --- which they normally do. This forces opponents to become so concerned with scoring as much as they can, and being as aggressive as they can, that they do uncharacteristic things like overrunning bags in crucial situations.
The Yankees' next opponent, the Angels, who during the regular season nearly matched them in offensive production (they scored 883 runs to the Yankees' 915), won't be as inclined to force themselves into making mistakes. As he fended off sprays of Bud, Girardi noted that the Yankees' sweep of the Twins will allow them to start CC Sabathia in Friday night's Game 1 in New York. "It's nice," he said. "You can set up your rotation the way you want. You want to be able to throw your ace the first game, and we can do it." But the Yankees know even with a rotation that will be both rested and set just as they'd like it to be, they will need more consistent production out of their hitters when facing the productive Angels. The Yankees batted just .225 in this series, and Robinson Cano (.167), Johnny Damon (.083), Mark Teixeira (.167) and Hideki Matsui (.222) all struggled.
As the last of the Twins' fans filed out of the Metrodome for the last time, an advertisement for the club's next game appeared on the ballpark's videoboard, which seems almost comically puny by today's standards. "NEXT HOME GAME: TWINS VERSUS RED SOX, APRIL 12 @3:30 PM," it read, over a picture of Target Field, the new outdoor stadium that will open in 2010. Minnesota is already looking forward to next year, and another fresh start. For the Yankees, however, the postseason is only now truly beginning.