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October 10, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Answering Questions, Dusting Brooms

by Jay Jaffe

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At the outset of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and Twins, doubts about the defending world champions centered almost entirely upon their rotation. Quite reasonably so, given that aside from ace CC Sabathia, their starters had put up a 5.91 ERA after the All-Star break, and that Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and every other one of manager Joe Girardi's options had sizable question marks next to their names. But even with Sabathia scuffling in Game One against the Twins, the Yankees were able to pull off a sweep of the series. On Thursday, Pettitte shook off concerns about his health and his stamina to pitch like a man who'd done it all a thousand times before. On Saturday night it was Hughes' turn, and with an electrified Bronx crowd of 50,840 at his back on a clear, crisp October night, he simply stifled the Twins with seven shutout innings while the Yankees offense pounced upon his opposite number, Brian Duensing. After four innings and a 5-0 lead, the outcome was never in doubt; the Yanks had their sweep.

Concerns about Hughes coming into the game were twofold. First, that after a strong start to the season (a 3.17 ERA with eight quality starts out of 13 through June 19) he wilted (a 5.07 ERA with seven quality starts out of 16) as the Yanks moderated his innings total; they limited him to just one frame after he'd hit his 175-inning mark on September 26. Second, given the choice between the distant fences of Target Field and the close quarters of NuYankee Stadium, he'd be better off pitching in road grays than the familiar pinstripes, lest too many balls leave the yard.

Coming into the game, Hughes and pitching coach Dave Eiland spoke of the need for the 24-year-old righty to integrate his changeup into his arsenal against lefty hitters. The development of his pitch had been a key reason he won the fifth starter job back in the spring, but it did a disappearing act until late in the year, when it helped him break out of his second-half funk; given the four lefties in the Twins' lineup, it certainly figured he'd call upon it as a weapon. Instead Hughes threw just two of them all night, and he limited his reliance on his cutter as well as he was able to spot his fastball so effectively.

From where I sat among the boisterous Bronx buffs in high right field, it was difficult to get a sense of Hughes' pattern, but looking back at the game log, not a single Twins hitter swung at his first pitch until the fourth inning, when Orlando Hudson grounded into a double play to erase Denard Span, the first Twin to reach base after Hughes' perfect trip through the order the first time around—it was that kind of night for the Twins. Span's first-pitch fly out in the sixth would be the only other time all night that they swung at Hughes' initial offering, but even as he got just nine out of 23 first-pitch strikes against the other hitters, he fell behind 2-0 just three times.

The Yankees spent the early part of the game inspecting the 27-year-old lefty Duensing's offerings as well, not swinging at a first-pitch until midway through the second inning, when Jorge Posada drove home Robinson Cano with the game's first run. Cano, a lefty who hits lefties about as well as anyone in the league—only four with at least 100 plate appearances posted higher OPSes—had tripled to deep center field; the ball was hit well over Span's head, and he got too close to the fence as it caromed off to prevent the slugging second sacker from taking third. With only one other Yankee swinging at a first pitch in the next frame—Derek Jeter on a ground out, natch—the Bronx Bombers added another run in the third, when Nick Swisher smoked a two-out double to left-center. Mark Teixeira followed by pasting a ball off the left field wall, but Delmon Young played the carom well enough to hold him to a long RBI single.

The Yanks finally broke the game open in the fourth, when Cano reached base on what was generously scored an infield single; he'd grounded to Michael Cuddyer, and the first baseman sailed his throw so wide of Duensing as he tried to cover the bag that it hit poor Yankees first-base coach Mick Kelleher right in the groin. Kelleher dropped as though he'd been shot, but fortunately was able to laugh it off after being attended to by the Yankees athletic trainers. The play may have cost Duensing focus, because his very next pitch—a sinker that didn't sink nearly enough—wound up being mashed by lefty-masher Marcus Thames into the right field bleachers to extend the lead to 4-0, the second straight game in which a Yankee DH had delivered a home run. "Happy Thames are here again!" shouted the middle-aged man in the seat next to me, echoing one of Yankees radio announcer John Sterling's more bearable signature calls. With the "Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!" cries renewed, Duensing lasted just two more hitters, winning a seven-pitch battle to strike out Posada, the losing an eight-pitch battle to Curtis Granderson via a walk after getting ahead 1-2.

On came Matt Guerrier, generally one of the Twins' later-inning bunch. He got ahead of Brett Gardner 0-2, but Granderson not only stole second base, he advanced to third when Joe Mauer threw the ball into center field. Gardner lofted a fly ball deep enough to left to bring Granderson home, and the Yanks had tacked on their fifth run, this time without benefit of a hit. They would threaten to run the score even higher when Jeter singled and stole second, Swisher walked, and Teixeira got ahead 3-1, but Guerrier recovered to fool the slugger with a pair of sliders on the outside corner.

After Hughes used just 40 pitches to get through the first four innings, he needed 32 to get through the fifth, as the Twins finally made him sweat. Young stroked a one-out single and Jim Thome worked a seven-pitch walk. Hughes recovered to strike out Cuddyer, the fifth of six Ks he'd notch on the night. Danny Valencia worked to a full count before popping up to Teixeira to end the threat. The Twins again put two aboard in the sixth on back-to-back two-out singles by Hudson and Mauer, but Hughes mowed Jason Kubel down on three pitches, putting him away with a high fastball.

Scott Baker came on in relief for Minnesota. The only righty among the Twins' rotation options who regularly misses bats, he suffered through a rough season on the BABIP and HR/FB fronts while battling elbow problems late in the year, hence manager Ron Gardenhire's decision to bypass him for a postseason start. Baker held the Yankees in check for two innings before surrendering a solo homer to Swisher to lead off the seventh, and while his performance generated second-guess mutterings among Twins fans as to whether he should have started, it must be noted both that he was pitching under low-leverage circumstances and that his own fly ball tendency made for a less-than-perfect fit with the ballpark in the Bronx, a point Swisher's blow underscored.

The Twins made one last-gasp threat in the eighth inning, once Kerry Wood came on in relief of Hughes. Valencia greeted him with a ringing double to left-center, Span sent him to third with a short single one out later, and Hudson brought him home with a stroke up the middle after getting ahead 3-0. Wood provoked further anxiety when he fell behind Mauer 3-0; "Get him out of there, he sucks!" shouted a guy in the section across the aisle from me; I returned fire with something more crude than the Yankees' post-July 31 bullpen splits, but Girardi took the leatherlung's advice. On came lefty Boone Logan, but he didn't stay long, needing just one pitch to force the lefty Kubel to pop out. Next came David Robertson, who needed just three pitches to retire Young. Despite the five-run margin, Girardi brought in Mariano Rivera to close out the game, and the great one Mo'd 'em down, striking out Thome and then inducing a pair of lazy fly balls as Yankees fans went into a frenzy. They never get tired of clinchers, and why should they?

So the Yankees advance to face the winner of the Rangers-Rays series, hopeful their AL East rivals can force a fifth game which would require the Rangers to expend Cliff Lee, thus forestalling his potential return until Game Three of the ALCS, should they advance. Much is being made of Lee's skittishness about working on short rest, and perhaps rightly so. If he wants Sabathia money as a free agent, he'd do well to deliver Sabathia service, and while he never refused to take the ball on three days' rest, he didn't ask for it either. With the Rays and Rangers in the early frames of Game Four as I write this, it's pointless to handicap the matchup at this moment; I'll be back on Thursday with a full-blown preview. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that in addition to the restoration of their rotation, the Yankees served to remind all other comers of the depth of their lineup; 10 different hitters collected at least two hits and one RBI in the three-game series, with all but Jeter scoring a run. Six different hitters collected extra-base hits, and as a team they hit .314/.351/.514 against a club that ranked third in the league in run prevention.

As for the Twins, they face another winter of soul searching after being eliminated at the hands of the Bronx Bombers for the second straight season and the fourth time in eight years. With home-field advantage, this year's battle with the Yankees was supposed to be different, but instead they lived up to the curiously dismal record they've posted versus the pinstripes in the Gardenhire era, falling to 18-57 (.240). Many can point to the fact that the supposedly fundamentally sound Twins were the ones making the mistakes afield, particularly in the decisive seventh inning of Game Two, and that they were the ones to wither late, blowing early leads in games One and Two and being outscored 6-1 after the sixth inning in the series. The simple fact is that their lefty-heavy lineup didn't match up well with the Yankees, particularly after Girardi shrewdly chose to go with Pettitte in Game Two, positioning his team to start as many as four lefties in a five-game series. Span, Mauer, Thome and Kubel combined to go just 8-for-43 in the series, all singles. The loss of Justin Morneau, the one Twins lefty who can more than hold his own against southpaws, deprived Gardenhire of a key bit of early-season flexibility which enabled him to hide either Thome or Kubel against southpaws, and Twins' general manager Bill Smith never made it a priority to find a righty bench bat who could offer a similar option.

The real take-home may be that 94 wins as the class of the AL Central does not come as close to equating with 95 wins as the runner-up in the AL East as might first appear. The Twins went just 15-21 versus AL East opponents this year, the fewest wins of any AL Central team and just a couple points shy of the lowest winning percentage (the Indians, at 17-24, were a bit worse). Against the East's big three beasts, they went 7-12 despite being outscored by just six runs, suggesting—I'm not poring over the box scores as I write this—that while they could play those teams closely, they had a tendency to falter in crucial situations. Perhaps that supposition doesn't hold up on closer inspection, but for a team that's now lost its last 12 post-season games and endured yet another Hobbesian playoff run—nasty, brutish and short—they'll have all winter to search for such answers.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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