October 5, 2003

The End

After they came into Yankee Stadium and took Game One on Tuesday afternoon, there was a feeling of pleasant surprise, accompanied by thoughts of "maybe we can do this after all."

Then they dropped a very winnable Game Two on Thursday night and a sense of disappointment set in, but the knowledge that winning one of the two games in Yankee Stadium was the goal from the outset helped to sooth that pain.

The Minnesota Twins left New York with homefield advantage and a lot of optimism. Then the weekend came and washed it all away.

The Twins' bats remained silent, the Yankees got some timely hits on Saturday, and Johan Santana imploded on Sunday. Now it's Monday and Minnesota's season is over, just like that.

To say I am surprised would be a lie. After all, I predicted "Yankees in four" and that is exactly what happened. The way the Yankees won the series in four games was more than a little surprising, however.

I envisioned the Yankees bashing the Twins into submission, hitting homers in bunches on their way to a series victory. That never really happened at all. The Yankees hit a total of only 2 home runs in the entire series, they slugged just .384 as a team, and they scored a modest 16 runs in four games.

While the majority of the credit in any series should be given to the winning team, one of the biggest factors in this particular series was the fact that Minnesota's offense, from the first pitch of Game One until the last pitch of Game Four, was completely non-existent. How much of that "credit" goes to New York's pitching is up for discussion, of course.

The Twins got some help from New York's defense in Game One and they were able to scratch and claw their way to 3 runs but, as I said last week, that game could very easily have been won by the Yankees by a score of 1-0.

Minnesota then scored 1 run in Game Two, 1 run in Game Three and 1 run in Game Four. That means, for the entire four-game series, they scored a total of 6 runs, 2 of which were gifts from Bernie Williams.

There were some other things that the Twins did poorly and quite a few things the Yankees did well, but if a team is only going to score six runs in four games against the New York Yankees, they aren't going to win anyway, so what's the difference?

Minnesota's "Offense":

Game One 8 31 .258 3 7 3
Game Two 4 32 .125 3 11 1
Game Three 5 32 .156 1 9 1
Game Four 9 36 .250 0 6 1
TOTAL 26 131 .198 9 33 6

The Twins generally got very good pitching in this series, from the starters and particularly the relievers, and their defense was also very good for the most part. But you simply don't have a chance to advance to the next round when you hit .198 and score six runs in four games.

They drew a total of 9 non-intentional walks in the four games, which isn't such a horrible walk rate considering the Twins don't walk that much and New York pitchers don't walk people at all. But if you aren't going to get on base via walks, you better get a lot of hits, and the Twins simply could never get sustained rallies going.

One of the major issues I raised in my preview of this series was the fact that Minnesota's offense seemed very similar to the Anaheim offensive-attack that destroyed the Yankees in last year's playoffs.

Here is a little bit of what I said in the preview:

"It would seem like the Twins are a good bet to exploit New York's defense in much the same way Anaheim did last season.

Except for one thing - the Twins don't put the ball in play nearly as often as the Angels did. And that is, after all, the real reason why Anaheim's offense was so well suited for dismantling New York's defense.

Yes, the Twins don't have much home run power and yes, they hit lots of singles, doubles and triples. But they also strike out quite a bit. While the Angels had over 100 fewer strikeouts than any other team in the American League last season, the Twins had the 6th-most strikeouts in the AL. On a per-game basis, the 2003 Twins struck out 28% more often than the 2002 Angels did.

Basically, it doesn't seem as though the Twins are as well suited for exploiting New York's poor defense as last year's Anaheim team was. Because of that, I wouldn't expect the Twins to be able to simply bash the Yankees into submission like the Angels did."

While the Angels struck out just 18 times in their four games with the Yankees last October, the Twins whiffed 33 times this year. That is a difference of 15 "balls in play" and, with the way New York plays defense, that could have meant an additional 5 or 6 hits for the Twins. Depending on when and where those hits took place, that could certainly have made a huge difference in Game Two and Game Three.

The Twins left a total of 28 runners stranded on base during the four games and left a combined 13 men in scoring position at the end of innings. There were several instances in both Game Two and Game Three where one bloop single or one double in the gap could have scored several runs for the Twins, which would have changed the complexion of the game and the entire series.

My favorite whipping-boy, Luis Rivas, did plenty of damage in the series. He went 0-13 in the four games, with 4 strikeouts and 0 walks. Even worse, he often found himself at the plate with men on base. As I documented in last Friday's entry, Rivas went 0-4 with 2 strikeouts in Game Two, leaving a total of 5 runners stranded on base, including two in scoring position. He made the final out of an inning three times. Rivas went 0-7 with 3 strikeouts with men on base during the series.

Luis Rivas was certainly not the only member of Minnesota's lineup that was horrible in the series and it is unfair to blame him for all their problems offensively, but his ineptitude was magnified by the fact that he batted #2 in the lineup, right behind Shannon Stewart, who was one of only two Twins (along with Torii Hunter) to have a good series offensively.

Stewart hit .400/.471/.533 in the series, getting on base a total of eight times in the four games. He found himself in scoring position on multiple occasions and each and every time, Luis Rivas failed to do something productive. I'm sure it was extremely frustrating to watch for any Twins fan, but I found it particularly maddening, considering the fair amount of Rivas-bashing I have been involved in on this blog.

Of course, in the interest of fairness and accuracy, I have ripped Rivas here a lot and he was certainly horrible, but "The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog" didn't have a particularly wonderful series either.

Johan Santana got the Game One start and was cruising along through four innings, when he came down with a severe cramp in his hamstring and had to exit the game. The Twins were amazingly able to hold on and win, thanks to a great effort by the bullpen.

They weren't quite as fortunate yesterday. Santana got the starting assignment in Game Four and, just as he did in Game One, he cruised through the Yankee lineup the first time around.

Santana struck out Alfonso Soriano leading off the game, allowed a single to Derek Jeter, and then set down 9 Yankees in a row. Through 3 1/3 innings, he had thrown just 33 pitches while allowing just that one single to Soriano, and he appeared ready to engage in a pitcher's duel with Yankees' starter David Wells.

And then the wheels came flying off. After Santana struck out Jeter leading off the top of the 4th, here is what happened:





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Intentional Walk


At that point it was 4-0 New York and Santana's day was officially over. Juan Rincon relieved him and immediately gave up a 2-run single to Soriano, making it 6-0 Yankees.

To say that I didn't think Johan "had it" yesterday obviously seems very easy to say after the fact, but you'll just have to trust me when I say I was thinking that even in the first three innings, when he was doing very well.

In fact, I took a few notes (as I usually do) during Santana's nearly flawless first three innings, included among them...

First inning:

Fastball velocity seems down. Only 87-89, instead of 92-94.

Second inning:

Fastball still coming in at 87-89. Breaking stuff and changeup look good, but something isn't right.

During that horrendous fourth inning, Santana's fastball was once again far below his normal velocity. I noted that it was 87 MPH in Bernie Williams' at bat and that the ball Hideki Matsui hit for a ground rule double was an 88 MPH fastball. Santana's first pitch to Aaron Boone, who made the lone out in the middle of all the damage, was a fastball clocked at just 86 MPH.

Strangely enough, in pitching to Nick Johnson (which turned out to be Santana's last batter of the game), Johan threw four straight fastballs, which registered at 91, 92, 92 and 92 MPH. The last of those was a 92 MPH fastball right down the heart of the plate on a 1-2 count, which Johnson smoked into right-center.

I give Johan credit for attempting to go out there and win the game, despite obviously not being 100% healthy. I also give him a ton of credit for somehow being able to buzz through New York's lineup for the first 11 batters of the game, despite a fastball that rarely reached 90 MPH. Of course, the bottom line is that, injury or not, he didn't get the job done in an immensely important game, and for that he doesn't deserve any credit at all.

The better team won this series and I expected them to do so, but it still hurts. Even the most pessimistic/realistic fan in the world holds out hope in the back of their mind that they could be wrong, that their team could beat the odds and do the impossible. Sometimes (Marlins, Cubs) those fans are pleasantly surprised and sometimes they aren't.

I would say "we'll get 'em next year" but I'm really not quite sure what next year will hold for the Minnesota Twins. They seem to me to be in a transition phase, in the unique position of having the pieces in place to rebuild the core of the team with younger players without dropping out of contention. That means a lot of tough decisions need to be made, so it will certainly be an interesting off-season in Minnesota. Of course, thoughts of that can and will wait for another day.

For now, enjoy the final game of the first-round, and make sure to stop by tomorrow for my preview of the NLCS.

Oh, and don't forget what I said in my preview of the Boston/Oakland series:

"I simply refuse to go against Pedro [in Game Five], whether he ends up pitching against Barry Zito on short-rest, Tim Hudson on full-rest or Walter Johnson on rest-in-peace. Pedro is still Pedro and I'll only believe he loses a deciding game when I see it, and even then I will be skeptical."

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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