By Ben Reiter
October 10, 2010

NEW YORK -- All series long -- and this series ultimately lasted just four days, so it was not so very long, but still -- the Twins again and again talked about how close they were to breaking through against the Yankees. That they had held a lead at some point in each of their eight consecutive postseason losses against New York was a statistic to which they kept referring, as if it had a great significance. "We're in almost every ballgame," manager Ron Gardenhire said on Friday. "We haven't been able to finish them off."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in turn, consistently and politely insisted that the Twins represented a formidable opponent. "I look at every game and they all could have [gone] either way," he said late Saturday night. (Of course, such is the nature of every athletic competition, ever, at least at some point). Of the Yankees' series-clincher, a 6-1 rout in which Girardi's charges dispensed with the fall-behind-for-a-few-minutes routine -- it was 5-0 by the top of the fifth -- Girardi said, "I think when you look at the score, it was probably closer than what it indicated."

No; the score was about right. And after it was over, it was finally clear exactly the role the Twins had been playing all along, despite the protestations of managers and players from both sides. They were the prey in a pinstriped snake's coils, coils that would spasmodically release once in awhile to give hope of further life, only to quickly tighten again, and with a deadlier grip.

"They kept puttin' the pressure on, and puttin' the pressure on, and ..." Twins slugger Jim Thome said after the game. There was no need for him to tell the rest of the story.

Playing the role of the serpent's head, on Saturday night: Phil Hughes. It seems as if Hughes has been around forever. Yankees fans have watched him grow from a skinny, crew-cutted rookie named Philip to a thick-chested veteran with a more grown-up-sounding nickname and a more grown-up-looking quasi-mullet to match. But Hughes is still just 24, not only the youngest player on the Yankees' roster, but the youngest player in the series -- and, for a little context, just nine months older than the Giants rookie sensation Buster Posey -- and he was in Game 3 making his first career postseason start.

Still, being young on the Yankees is different than being young on most other teams. "I know the atmosphere," Hughes said when he'd been asked about the prospect of pitching in an important game.

You could tell that on Saturday afternoon, reported right fielder Nick Swisher -- "I knew he was going to have a great game tonight. He was just cool, man. Just chill, relaxed," Swisher said -- and you could tell that on Saturday night.

Hughes, who went 18-8 this season but struggled after taking the loss in the All-Star Game (second half ERA: 4.90), put together the Yankees' best start of the series, outpitching both Game 1 starter CC Sabathia and Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte. He was perfect after his first trip through the Twins' lineup, only slightly less perfect through the next four batters (he allowed a single to Denard Span), and in seven innings yielded four hits, one walk, and no runs.

In the end, all the somber Twins had to hold on to was a statistic that was rather curiously explained on the Official Game Information sheet the club handed out to media members before the game. "The bad news for Twins fans is that the team extended its postseason losing streak to 11 games," the sheet read, referring to Game 2. "The good news is that they cannot, this year, equal the major league record of consecutive postseason losses." As good news goes, that's not very good. Their postseason losing streak stands at 12.

The last nine of those losses have come to New York, and last year, when the Yankees swept away the Twins in the Metrodome in the ALDS, their celebration was rather subdued -- there was some jumping around on the infield, and some champagne spraying in the clubhouse. On Saturday, even though they were at home this time, there was hardly a celebration at all. On the field, the Yankees staged little more than their normal post-win routine, in which they make two lines and give each other low-fives. After the players moved inside, the club probably could have saved a few dollars by forgoing plastic sheeting that hung over the players' lockers, as the clubhouse celebration resembled a bridal shower that had gotten only slightly out of hand.

Derek Jeter, in fact, looked surprised when his backup, Ramiro Pena, emptied the last foamy remnants of one bottle of Chandon onto his head, as he was speaking with reporters. "You want to be clickin' on all cylinders, and we were these three games," Jeter had been saying. "We were hot for this round. We'll see what happens the next round."

That next round, the American League Championship Series, will commence on Friday, in either Tampa Bay or Texas. The other Division Series might be over by Sunday afternoon, or by late Tuesday night, if the Rays manage to force a Game 5. The Yankees will spend that time lying dormant, getting their rotation back in its proper order, preparing to face an opponent that ought to constitute a more difficult challenge than the swallowed-whole Twins (New York was this season 4-4 against Texas, 8-10 against Tampa Bay), whose carcass should by Friday have completed its slow, winding journey through the Yankees' digestive tract.

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