MINNEAPOLIS -- "The ruling was a base hit," it was announced in the press box, about three hours and 45 minutes into Game 1 of this AL Division Series. The ruling was wrong.
Greg Golson, just inserted into right field by Yankees manager Joe Girardi as a defensive replacement for Nick Swisher, had clearly gotten his glove's leather between Delmon Young's sinking liner and the Target Field turf. Everybody saw it that way, except for umpire Chris Guccione. Girardi saw it that way, and rushed out to argue. Alex Rodriguez saw it that way, all the way from third base, and he went into full CSI mode, demonstrating to the ump that the ball exhibited not a hint of a grass stain. It was to no avail, and the game was not over, as games usually are when there are already 26 outs and a ball is caught on the fly by an outfielder. Instead, there were 26 outs still, and up strode Jim Thome, representing the tying run, to face Mariano Rivera.
Here, you began to wonder: is this how the Yankees' years dominance of the Twins start to end -- due to a bogus call? Was that the little extra push that Minnesota needed, however artificial? You wondered that for about two minutes, and then Rivera needed only a single pitch -- a cutter, of course -- to induce from Thome a weak pop-up to Rodriguez at third, and the Yankees had won here, again. It was the seventh playoff game the Yankees have won in Minneapolis, in seven tries, and their 15th win in their last 17 games against the Twins, and it seemed in many ways to be an extension of last year's ALDS sweep.
Once again, as they had in all three games last year, the Twins raced out to an early lead. In the second inning, CC Sabathia beaned Thome -- only a last second shrug by the slugger prevented the pitch from meeting his right cheekbone -- and then, as the taunting chords of "Wild Thing" still echoed through the stands, Michael Cuddyer hit a three-iron to dead center, which landed in the middle of the row of 14 spruce trees planted there, 419 feet away. The Twins stretched their lead to 3-0 against the Yankees' ace, when the savvy Orlando Hudson went from first to third on a groundout to first, and then scored on a passed ball that Jorge Posada might easily have caught were he a younger man. Even though the Twins no longer play under a roof, it was so loud in the ballpark that it sounded as if they do, and, said manager Ron Gardenhire afterwards, "The guys were into it."
"It felt like we were in the ninth inning -- and we were in the third," said Swisher. "But there was no panic." Once again, as they did last season, the Yankees lineup steadily ate away at the Twins, like an antibiotics-resistant bacteria. In the sixth, they broke through against Francisco Liriano, Minnesota's comeback ace who had held them scoreless on only a pair of singles through five innings.
"Just missing my spot," Liriano said, again and again like a mantra, to explain how he suddenly yielded a double to Mark Teixeira, then a walk to Rodriguez, then a single to Robinson Cano, then -- after a Marcus Thames strikeout -- a single to Posada, and finally a wall-scraping triple by Curtis Granderson, resulting in four runs and a Yankee lead. "Just missing my spot. They were more patient than they were in the beginning. Like I said, just missing my spot," Liriano said.
The Twins tied the game at 4-4 on a bases-loaded walk by Danny Valencia in the bottom of the sixth, but then Teixeira cranked a two-run homer just inside the right-field foul pole the next inning, and soon, once again, it was time for Rivera. Just before the game, Girardi had expressed some wariness about using the 40-year-old closer for more than three outs. "Is there trepidation about using him more than three outs? A little bit. ... We try not to do it," he had said. Then he used him for four outs -- or, more properly, five, thanks to Guccione the umpire. "I thought it was time to go Mo," Girardi explained afterwards. "It is one thing to sit up here three hours before the game and talk about what you might do and might not do. You get in a situation and you look at a match-up, and I said it is a good match-up for Mo."
It is both easy and tempting -- even for Twins fans, normally an upbeat lot, but one that filed out of their limestone-accented new stadium grumbling and cursing -- to look at how this game played out and assume that since it seems to be the continuation of a pattern from last October (and, in fact, from both 2003 and '04, when the Yankees beat the Twins in the ALDS, too), that the pattern will continue for two more games, and that will again be that for Minnesota. Easy, tempting, and wrong, says Derek Jeter, who at 36 seems to have less patience than ever for ideas like this -- ideas about overarching patterns and storylines that he doesn't believe exist, and probably don't. "This is an entirely different team," he said brusquely in the visitors' locker room, referring to the Twins, when someone asked him about the Yankees' recent good fortune against them. "We won Game 1. What we've done last year, three, four, five years ago, doesn't make a difference."
He is right: just because the Twins didn't appear to be different in Game 1, doesn't mean that they are not, or can't be -- deeper, more mature, more dangerous. And the Yankees are different too -- particularly Andy Pettitte, Thursday night's starter, who has won more games in the history of postseason baseball than anyone but who has pitched just three in the past two-and-a-half months, two of them rather poorly. "I'm just looking forward to, you know, making this start tomorrow and getting out there and hopefully getting going, get in a good rhythm," he said. "Hopefully get a good release point going and putting the ball where I want to put it and give us a good quality start. Hopefully."
A lot of "hopefully's," to be sure. It will be incumbent on the Twins to exploit that uncertainty, and to show that the pattern we might detect in their recent playoff history against the Yankees is merely a coincidence, if an extended one, and not how it always must be. A Game 1 loss to the Yankees' ace doesn't mean that history will again ultimately repeat itself for the Twins. Losses in both Games 1 and 2, followed by a trip to Yankee Stadium, will almost certainly ensure that it will.