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2009 ALDS Game One: Twins at Yankees

Everything went according to the Yankees’ script tonight at The Stadium. Derek Jeter added to his postseason resume, CC Sabathia was dominant, the Twins were a plucky but not overly troublesome opponent, the bullpen was a well-oiled machine, and Alex Rodriguez got off the schneid.

I drove to New York today from Boston to make it in time for the game. I met up with my friend Lori, leaving my bags at her apartment, and then we headed to the Stadium. Found parking and walked, and just made it to our seats in time to see the first batter, Denard Span.

Who doubled. And even moved to third on a passed ball. But CC struck out the next two men, pesky Orlando Cabrera and the ever-dangerous Joe Mauer, then got Michael Cuddyer to fly out, stranding Span on third.

Sabathia struck out two more in the second, and each time he went to two strikes on any batter, the crowd rose to its feet, rooting for the strikeout and inaugurating the new Stadium to the postseason all at once. The 6pm start to the game and the windy fall weather made for a beautiful pink and purple sky, with clouds scudding across a silver backdrop. The wind was so intense that it blew whole packages of cotton candy from the concession stands out of the upper deck onto the fans below.

Jeter, meanwhile, had led the game off with a single on the first pitch. Do you think maybe someone lies awake at night just running positive visualizations of doing that? Off days drive Jeter crazy because that’s all he does, I think. He just thinks about what he WANTS to do. And he’d rather be doing it than thinking about it.

But Damon, Teixeira, and A-Rod went down easily, leaving Jeter on second. Matsui, Posada, and Cano went down just as easily in the second, but the sheer number of fouls balls each batter was hitting not only drove up the pitch count on lefty Brian Duensing, but gave me the impression that they were feeling him out, getting the feel for his pitches, such that the second time through the lineup they were probably going to resolve him into his component parts.

Which is pretty much what came to pass. But first, Sabathia ran into a little trouble in the third. Nick Punto, who racked up only a .228 average in the regular season but who had a much more impressive OBP, meaning he is the type of player who works the count, had one crucial nine-pitch at bat in the playoff game against the Tigers and another of ten pitches, worked on Sabathia until he ended up with a single. He was erased on a double play, but consecutive hits by Cabrera, Mauer, and Cuddyer meant a run, with another run coming on the second passed ball of the night. 2-0 Twins, and the susurrations in the crowd turned nervous. Could the upstart Twins, with nothing to risk and on a loosey goosey high from yesterday, rise up and poke the Yankees in the eye, like they have in the first game of the last several postseason meetings between these teams?

In a word, no. What momentum they gained, Derek Jeter took back with one swing of the bat in the bottom of the third. Nick Swisher struck the ball well, but lined out, then Melky Cabrera had an infield hit to bring Jeter to the plate. Instead of hitting the first pitch, which was nearly in the dirt, Jeter let it go by, and then pulled the next pitch, a slider on the inner half of the plate, right in his wheelhouse (you did know that Jeter CAN pull the ball when appropriate, right?), for a game-tying home run to left.

Even though the score was only tied at that point, everyone seemed to relax. Never fear, the Captain’s here. And this is his time of year.

The Twins would not score again; the Yankees would. By the time Joe Girardi gave his postseason bullpen a test run, they were up 6-2. Sabathia departed to a huge ovation after 114 pitches in the seventh inning, having struck out eight. Girardi called on Hughes to strike out the still-pesky Orlando Cabrera and end the inning. In the eighth, Hughes continued, giving up a leadoff single to Joe Mauer, but then striking out Cuddyer. Phil Coke came on to get Jason Kubel, and retired him on one pitch, as Kubel’s line shot toward right was snared in the glove of Mark Teixeira. One fan I saw today was wearing a homemade T-shirt that read “Teix Is Seixy.” Couldn’t agree more. Then, after Coke got his man, on came Joba Chamberlain.

Joba was greeted with raucous cheers. I don’t know how he looked on TV, but from the upper deck he looked like he hadn’t shaved and his hat was crusted with sweat-salt. Rock and roll. It took him two pitches to get Delmon Young to hit into an inning-ending force out.

The Twins pitching staff was taxed after the mad dash to catch the Tigers and then yesterday’s 12-inning extravaganza, so when Ron Gardenhire picked Brian Duensing to pitch game one, it was actually that the rookie lefty was his only viable choice. Duensing spent part of the year at Class AAA Rochester, then was in the big league bullpen, and landed in the rotation only when injuries made it a necessity. The Yankees knocked him out of the game in the fifth, after Jeter’s two-run shot in the third, they tacked on another in the fourth, and then in the fifth Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with Jeter on second and two outs.

I could almost hear the pages flipping in the media notes as everyone double checked the stat. Yes, Virginia, A-Rod really did got 0-for-27 with runners in scoring position if you count from game 4 of the 2004 ALCS before coming into tonight’s game. And he really did fly out with Jeter on second in the first. And he really did strike out in the third with a man on first to end the inning.

And he really did bring Jeter in with two out in the fifth. And later, in the seventh? This time with Jeter on third and two outs, did he cash him in? Yes. So can we now stop talking about A-Rod’s RBI allergy? I hope so.

Besides, now the media has another juicy controversy to chew on–Jorge Posada is miffed. Girardi announced a few days back that when AJ Burnett starts on Friday in game two, Jose Molina will be behind the plate. Jorge is a fiery and proud guy, as well as outspoken. You’ve all read the quotes by now, I’m sure. It would of course all blow over if Burnett wins the game. But the fire was stoked by the two passed balls, one which almost cost the Yankees a run, and one which did allow Mauer to cross the plate. Jorge also looked sluggish on Cabrera’s steal of second in the fifth, although I’m of the opinion that they were happy to let Cabrera vacate first base so they could pitch around Mauer if they wanted to. (As it turns out, Mauer grounded out.) Regardless what the reasons may be, the fact is that the microscope is on Posada as a result of his comments, and the two passed balls are therefore Highly Magnified. To paraphrase Jorge himself, they had better [have won] the game, or he’d really be on the hot seat now.

When Duensing exited, in came Francisco Liriano, another lefty, but the only other fresh arm in the Twins’ bullpen. The first batter he faced was Hideki Matsui. Matsui rarely hits homers to the opposite field, but he did this time, perhaps aided by the wind, but whether it was the weather, circumstance, or Lou Gehrig’s ghost deciding to get into the act, the ball cleared the wall for a two-run shot.

Jeter had a perfect night. Two-for-two with two walks, and before his at bat in the seventh, the clouds shredded to reveal an off-white gibbous moon, like a giant eye trying to get a look at him in the batter’s box. And the fans had a perfect night, not too cold, and with the early start to the game plenty of kids and youngsters enjoying the party at the big ballpark in the Bronx. Mariano Rivera knocked the rust off in the ninth, despite there was no save situation, striking out the first two men, but then walking Nick Punto, who had yet another really long working-the-count at bat, and giving up a single to Denard Span. But Orlando Cabrera grounded out to end the game at 9:45 pm. We were in the car driving down the Grand Concourse, away from the Stadium and the traffic by 10:12.

We’ll do it all again on Friday night.

P. S. Read my recap of the epic Tigers/Twins playoff and my preview of the ALDS at the Baseball Early Bird, October 7 issue.

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