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Yankees continue hex on Twins

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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MINNEAPOLIS

You could call it a curse or a hex or maybe even a plague and no one would argue the point. Not after 10 straight losses in the postseason, which, after a 6-4 setback at the hands of the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS, must have the Twins wondering if they’ll ever break free.

Really, how many more signs do they need of the fates’ conspiracy to crush them? They had CC Sabathia ready to take his last breath, down 3-0 after three innings, running up his pitch count faster than a New York City taxi meter. The big left-hander, normally a strike-zone surgeon, had no command of his fastball, no aura about him, nothing to suggest he’d finished the regular season on the short list of Cy Young finalists.

This was the best-case scenario the Twins had been envisioning ever since the Division Series pairing were crystallized. Get the home-field advantage over the wild-card Yankees, find a way to take down Sabathia in the opener and then puncture the myth of Yankee superiority once and for all.

The plan made sense. In fact, it was on its way to working — until it didn’t. The Twins coughed up leads of 3-0 and 4-3, and were doomed altogether when Mark Teixeira blasted a two-run HR in the seventh inning off Jessie Crain.

When it was finally over, after Mariano Rivera had nailed down the final three outs for what felt like the millionth time between these two teams, Michael Cuddyer shook his head and said, "We had our chances and just couldn't come through. We just have to come back tomorrow and see if we can't figure things out."

This is no small task for a team that, beyond those 10 straight losses in the playoffs, has dropped five of its last six series in October. The Twins are about to find out if their 52 regular-season wins will have a spill-over effect in Game 2. They’re facing Andy Pettitte, who’s won more postseason games than any other pitcher in history. If Minnesota can’t head to New York with a split, the Twins might as well flip the calendar to pitchers and catchers.

As for the Yankees, a victory tonight puts them in position for an outright sweep, which would spare them the burden of pitching Sabathia on short rest in Game 4. There was some concern among the Yankee staff over Sabathia’s uncharacteristic wildness — he hit Jim Thome with an up-and-in fastball in the second, then walked three batters in the fourth, including Danny Valencia on four pitches with the bases loaded.

Sabathia is normally poison to hitters who are unable to crack the code on his fastball, curve, change and two-seamer. He has so many weapons it’s impossible to out-guess him. But early on, Sabathia realized he was failing to take advantage of his 6-7 frame; instead of throwing “downhill” with a high release point, his front shoulder was “opening up” said pitching coach Dave Eiland.

“Normally CC is able to correct it like that,” Eiland said, snapping his fingers. “But not tonight.”

Maybe it was the nine-day layoff between starts; Sabathia made an emergency appearance against the Blue Jays last Tuesday and had to skip the final weekend at Fenway. The Yankees knew something was wrong when Sabathia allowed Cuddyer a two-run HR moments after hitting Thome. This was like some alternate-universe ace, throwing meatballs over the middle of the plate, walking the park, at times looking overwhelmed.

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Still, the Bombers are choosing to take the big man’s word for it when he says, “overall my arm feels pretty good. It was a grind for me all night, but if I have to (pitch on three days’ rest), I’ll be ready.”

The Yankees will, for now, focus on the other positive developments, including Teixeira’s HR, which he blasted despite persistent pain in his right hand and pinky toe. Curtis Granderson contributed a game-changing triple in the sixth inning, giving the Yankees what they thought would be a safe, 4-3 lead.

That is, until Sabathia flew into more turbulence in the bottom half of the inning. It wasn’t until Rivera finally arrived that the Yankees knew order had been restored. Just to make his point, Rivera broke the bats of all four Twins batters he faced.

The Central Division champs will do as Cuddyer suggests, re-group and look for a calculus. Maybe it’s Carl Pavano. Maybe it’ll be Pettitte struggling with the strike zone. Maybe it’ll be the inches that, this time, will go the Twins’ way.

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They only had to see Robinson Cano’s RBI single in the fourth to realize this wasn’t their night. With one out and runners on first and second — still leading 3-0 — Francisco Liriano induced a grounder from Cano just to the right of first base.

If the better-fielding Justin Morneau hadn’t been injured this summer and was instead at first base Wednesday night, he would’ve likely grabbed it and turned an inning-ending double play. Instead, the ball eluded the right-handed Cuddyer by inches, leading to what became a Yankee surge.

Although that wasn’t the decisive rally, the Yankees nevertheless sent the message into the Twins dugout. Derek Jeter all but broadcast it to reporters when he said, “we felt all along we could win that game.”

He was talking about the hex, the curse, the plague that never ends between these two teams: Yankees and Twins, same as it ever was.

Tagged: Twins, Yankees, CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Michael Cuddyer

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