Twins were just a warmup for Yankees

October 9, 2010

The ballpark was all but empty 15 minutes after the last out, the sound of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” bouncing off the sea of blue seats that were no longer occupied.

The fans were already on the highway or headed for the subway, leaving the Yankees to the all-too-familiar ritual of hugging and high-fiving each other. In the clubhouse the champagne-cannons doused everyone as expected, but the party ran out of testosterone too. Before long Greg Golson was at his locker, quietly checking e-mail.

The Twins, compliant as ever, played their part, collapsing the way they always do in October. The 6-1 loss in Game 3 of the Division Series was their 12th in a row in the postseason and the ninth straight to the Yankees.

Maybe that’s why the series clincher was so anti-climactic, even in front of the largest announced crowd at the new Yankee Stadium (50,840). This showdown couldn’t even have been called a skirmish — it was over in Game 1, when the Twins couldn’t hang on to a 3-0 lead against a mediocre CC Sabathia in their own ballpark.

Ron Gardenhire tried to explain yet another embarrassing performance by his Twins, admitting, “We can’t seem to put it together. We just didn’t get it done. We have to do some searching to figure out how to get better.”

The Twins were no match for the Yankees for two reasons. The first was the inability of their left-handed power hitters -- Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome -- to take advantage of the stadium’s short right-field fence. The trio managed just two singles in 11 at-bats Saturday and were just 4-for-32 (.125) with no extra base hits in the series.

Second, the Yankees used the three-game sweep as a warmup for their second-tier players such as Hughes, Lance Berkman and Marcus Thames. When Joe Girardi described his “circular” lineup, he was referring to an always-ready Plan B in the event Alex Rodriguez (.278 against Minnesota) or Robinson Cano (one RBI) are less than spectacular.

Instead, it was Berkman who beat the Twins in Game 2 with a two-run HR and game-winning double, just as Thames delivered a crucial two-run HR off Brian Duensing in the fourth inning on Saturday.

The blast gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead and, considering how hard Hughes was throwing (topping out at 94 mph) and how passive the Twins seemed, that lead might as well have been 100 runs. It was obvious from the first inning that Duensing was unnerved by the noise and energy in the Bronx and wouldn’t get through the lineup even once before falling behind.

To be fair, Duensing wasn’t alone in his failure. The Twins proved they didn’t belong on the same field with the Yankees at this time of the year. It’s no stretch to say the Blue Jays, the East’s fourth-best team, could’ve won the Central if they'd been surrounded by lightweights like the White Sox, Tigers and Royals.

That’s why it’s too soon to calibrate how good (or great) the 2010 Yankees really are. Most industry observers believe they’re a notch below the Phillies, assuming this return match ever occurs. But first the Yankees will have to get by the Rangers, or, on a longshot, the Rays.

Both teams pose threats to the Bombers. The Rangers will have Cliff Lee as their best weapon; C.J. Wilson will be riding shotgun. While Texas would obviously prefer to finish off the Rays in four games and thus preserve Lee for Game 1 against Sabathia, there’s actually an advantage if Texas and Tampa Bay go to a fifth game.

Lee would obviously start, which would make him unavailable before Game 3 of the LCS against the Yankees. But the left-hander would have a more favorable matchup than if he’d been paired against Sabathia. And by going in Game 3, Lee would also be available in a Game 7 on full rest.

The Rays, should they somehow wriggle free, have David Price and all the momentum of a comeback against Texas. They took the season series from the Yankees and believe, in their hearts, they’re the better team.

But the Yankees are a different entity than the one that went 13-17 after September. Girardi’s decision to save his ammo may have cost the Yankees the division title, but with the exception of Sabathia and Kerry Wood, who surprisingly pitched himself into a jam in the eighth inning Saturday, the Bombers looked robust.

Still, is that enough to call the Yankees history-makers? No one’s mistaking them for the 2009 edition, at least not yet. And it’ll be awhile, if ever, before we see another version of the ’98 team, which was the perfect killing machine.

Still, the 2010 team put constant pressure on the Twins, both on offense and with pitching. The psychological burden of having to capitalize on any glimmer of hope torched the discipline Gardenhire had preached all summer. But there it was, proof of the Twins’ anxiety when, after Wood had been knocked out, leaving a one-out bases-loaded jam to Boone Logan, Jason Kubel swung at the very first pitch he saw.

The ball went nowhere, a pop-up that landed softly in Alex Rodriguez’s glove. Three pitches later, after David Robertson got Delmon Young to fly out to center, the Twins had taken their last breath. The Yankees finished with — who else — Mariano Rivera getting the last three outs, a few man-hugs and the promise of two days off before resuming workouts on Tuesday.

Everyone exhaled, long and slow. The real war, the Yankees know, is just around the corner.