NEW YORK -- Mr. October sauntered over to talk to Alex Rodriguez before Game 1 of the Division Series here in hopes that a little postseason magic might rub off on the $30 million man. This is a scene that's repeated every year at this time.
Reggie Jackson, the Yankees postseason hero turned Yankee troubleshooter, is summoned annually to loosen up A-Rod, who can be tighter than a five-percent tipper at this time. And when Reggie was done loosening up his better-paid protégé Wednesday afternoon, Reggie made his usual October prediction.
"A-Rod's going to have a good series," Reggie declared.
Truth be told, that is exactly what he says every year.
"I didn't know in the past what he was going to do. I was just hoping he'd catch lightning in a bottle those other times," Reggie said.
That's what he says every year, too.
"He just looks good now," Reggie continued, undaunted. "He's ready to go."
Lets' just say Jackson's batting average as a player was higher than his batting average when it comes to Rodriguez. But this time, Rodriguez does appear looser. He hasn't been the center of attention all season, and he has seemed noticeably happier to those around him.
Rodriguez deflects questions that are about him to talk about the team, a la Jeter. He has been somewhat scarcer in a clubhouse full of hiding spots, and when he comes out to talk, he talks about the team now. That's what he did Wednesday night, after breaking a long hitless streak in key playoff spots with two run-producing hits and helping the Yankees to a 7-2 Game 1 victory over the Twins. Eventually, A-Rod did allow, "It definitely felt good to contribute."
"He has come with a different mentality," Mariano Rivera said of Rodriguez. "He has been tremendous this year. He's been great. Wonderful."
"He seems relaxed. He seems focused out there," Jorge Posada said.
"He seems very comfortable since he's been back," Derek Jeter said.
When the game started, at first it was the same old October A-Rod. He flied to right in the first, stranding Jeter at second base and thus making it 0 for 19 in his last 19 postseason at-bats with runners in scoring position. Then he whiffed in the third inning with Mark Teixeira on first base, making it 0 for 29 in his last 29 postseason at-bats with runners on base.
The strikeout was especially bad. Twins starter Brian Duensing, a Nebraskan who'd been a teammate of Yankee Joba Chamberlain at the University of Nebraska but had never before even been to New York City, used a tantalizing changeup to whiff baseball's best-paid player. A-Rod was way out in front. Once again, he looked anxious. Jackson's loosening skills didn't appear to be helping.
But in the fifth inning, Duensing tried to slip a low fastball past Rodriguez, and he lined a run-scoring hit to left field. The 0-for-19 and 0-for-29 streaks were broken.
And then in the seventh inning, Rodriguez stroked a Jon Rauch offering over right fielder Jason Kubel's head for a run-scoring single. That made it 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position and 2 for 31 with runners in scoring position. He is downright hot.
Jackson was in a very good mood. That is until he saw Twins pitcher Carl Pavano, who's hated in these parts after taking $39.95 million to be a Yankee, winning nine games, getting into an unreported car accident and spending four years generally luxuriating, skirt chasing and recuperating.
"Why would he wear my number?" Jackson said, observing Pavano across the field. "That's not good."
Pavano, who did wear Jackson's No. 44 in Cleveland, actually wears No. 48 for the Twins.
The crowd presumably didn't take offense at that number but booed him lustily in pre-series introductions. (If any number bothers the fans, it's got to be that $39.95 million figure.)
Pavano has managed to win more games this year than in his four years in New York. And he will start Game 3 of this series, although the Twins still haven't quite officially announced it. Maybe they think mere mention of his name will rile up the Yankees.
The Twins are amazing. To erase a seven-game deficit in September is incredible. And to do it without injured slugger Justin Morneau is really incredible.
Michael Cuddyer, who replaced Morneau as the team's cleanup hitter and first baseman, said courage is the key.
Twins GM Bill Smith, who picked up Orlando Cabrera, Jon Rauch, Ron Mahay and Pavano to help push them past the Tigers, said it's consistency.
Smith mentioned how just about everyone else came up through their minor-league system. He pointed out one executive -- Jim Rantz, currently the director of the minor leagues -- with 49 Twins years on his resume. Now, that's some consistency.
Smith listed every facet of the organization, and mentioned how consistent they all are. But "first and foremost," Smith said, "It's the players."
"The players, they never quit," Smith said. "They are high-quality players and high-quality human beings. The represent us well on and off the field. We couldn't be prouder."
When it was mentioned to Cuddyer that the oddsmakers are making the Twins a 5-1 underdog in this series. Cuddyer said, "I'm sure the odds were even more astronomical at the beginning of the month for us to still be here. But we don't really go by what other people think."
Few expected the Twins to beat the Mets to the postseason after Minnesota traded Johan Santana to the Queens team for four prospects, including speedy young outfielder Carlos Gomez. But when Gomez scored the winning run Tuesday night in the Twins' 6-5, 12-inning victory over Detroit, they did just that.
"You really can't say it was an even trade because Johan is one of the best pitchers in the game," Gomez said. "But Minnesota got what it needed, an outfielder to replace Torii Hunter."
Of course, Denard Span is actually the one who has replaced Hunter. But why let the facts stand in the way?
A.J. Burnett told reporters it wasn't his call for Jorge Posada to sit for his Game 2 start. But he didn't say he disagreed with manager Joe Girardi's decision. And everyone, including Girardi, knows Burnett doesn't feel comfortable with Posada catching.
Posada is still a big-time threat with the bat, so this is a real gamble on Girardi's part. But Posada made Girardi's call to go with Molina in Game 2 look better when he committed two passed balls in the first four innings. He whiffed on two high pitches from Sabathia, and he worsened the situation the second time by failing to locate ball, as his catching counterpart Joe Mauer scored from third base.
Posada said they were both cross-ups, with the first one his fault and the second one CC's fault. The communication between Posada and Burnett has been an issue this year. So Girardi made the gutsy call.
• The Yankees noted that a key to Sabathia's success Wednesday in Game 1 here was "backing him off" in September. But while he threw less this September than last September, he actually threw about 90 more pitches this September than in September of 2007 with Cleveland
• Joe Torre's faith in Jeff Weaver continues to be surprising. Torre's biggest strategic mistake as Yankees manager was summoning Weaver in relief only to see him give up a game-winning home run to Alex Gonzalez. But this time, Weaver replaced Randy Wolf in the fourth inning and got out of a bases-loaded jam against his former Cardinals team
• The Mets copped out firing bench coach Sandy Alomar and first-base coach Luis Alicea but keeping all the real decision-makers and high-priced folks. In letting Alomar and Alicea go, Jerry Manuel explained that the defense and baserunning were not good. But guess what? Neither were the hitting or pitching. "Sandy Alomar is baseball royalty," longtime baseball man Ray Negron, now with the Yankees, said. "For the Mets to treat him that way is totally disrespectful. Sandy Alomar knows more baseball than all of them put together."
• Funny Nick Johnson story. At the 2001 playoffs, he asked a writer about the dogs on the field, and when he was told they were bomb-sniffing dogs, Johnson responded, "What are they looking for?"
• By the way, Johnson probably won't be making a return to New York. While the Mets will look at free agent first baseman, and Omar Minaya had Johnson with the Expos, the Mets are shying away from injury-prone players.
• The four players with the longest tenure who entered the season with no playoff experience all played on teams with winning records. But all still failed to make the playoffs. They are Michael Young, Randy Wynn, Mike Sweeney and Aubrey Huff. Huff, by the way, was a disaster with the Tigers in his first real pennant race.