October 10, 2004

Wait Til Next Year (Again)

It's funny how quickly things can change. One minute I was optimistic about the Twins' chances of pulling off a first-round upset, and the next minute I'm eulogizing their season. One minute I was defending Ron Gardenhire's decision to leave Joe Nathan in for the 12th inning of Game 2 amidst an onslaught of dissenting e-mails, and the next minute I was screaming "why the hell did he take him out?!" when Gardenhire decided it was time to show off his quick hook with Johan Santana in Game 4.

While I understood Gardenhire's decision-making process with Nathan in Game 2 -- I agreed with him that his other available options, namely J.C. Romero and Jesse Crain, were not better than Nathan -- I have no clue what the logic behind removing Santana after five innings was. With the Twins facing an actual "must-win" game, and not just the cliche-driven use of the phrase that we hear so much come playoff time, Gardenhire made the decision to go with his ace, Santana, the best pitcher in the American League this year, on short rest. If Santana came through, the team would live to fight another day, likely sending Brad Radke out on short rest in Game 5, at Yankee Stadium. If the team lost, at least they lost with Santana.

So Santana started and, although he wasn't quite as sharp as he was during the second half, when he went 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA, he was about as good as could have reasonably been expected from a guy working on three days' rest for the first time in his career. His fastball was popping, his slider was breaking, and his changeup was as nasty as ever, a welcomed sight after Santana had to make due largely without his best pitch in Game 1.

After giving up a run in the third inning and getting into a little trouble in the fourth, Santana struck out Derek Jeter to get out of the jam. Then, after walking Alex Rodriguez to begin the top of the fifth, Santana struck out Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui swinging, and got Bernie Williams to ground out to end the inning. With the Twins' offense finally breaking through against Javier Vazquez in the bottom of the inning, Santana was rolling right along and suddenly had a 5-1 lead to work with heading into the top of the sixth.

Except he never made it that far. Gardenhire approached him in the dugout after the Twins scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth and told Santana that his day was done. After just five innings and 87 pitches, and having struck out three of the last four batters he faced, Santana was taken out of the game and the Twins' bullpen was given the 5-1 lead with four innings to hold it. And they almost did.

Grant Balfour was the first guy out of the pen and pitched brilliantly, mowing the Yankees down for two innings -- six up and six down with pure, mid-90s gas. With the score still 5-1 Twins, Balfour then turned it over to Juan Rincon for the top of the eighth, at which point everything fell apart. Rincon, who had a 2.63 ERA in 82 innings during the year, held opponents to a measly .181 batting average, gave up just five homers to the 327 batters he faced, and allowed more than two runs once in 77 appearances, was asked to hold the Yankees down for one more inning, before turning things over to Nathan.

Thirty pitches and just one out later, the game was tied at five. Sheffield led the inning off with a broken bat infield single, Matsui walked, and Williams singled to right-center, scoring Sheffield and putting runners on the corners with no outs. Jorge Posada struck out swinging on a slider down and in, and then Rincon left a pitch up and out over the plate on a 2-2 count to Ruben Sierra. Sierra destroyed the pitch, sending it into the folded up seats in deep right-center for a game-tying, momentum-changing, crowd-silencing three-run homer.

From there it was just a matter of time, and that time came in the top of the 11th inning. Kyle Lohse struck Jeter out to lead off the inning and then Rodriguez doubled to left. ARod then got a huge jump from second base and stole third base without a throw, allowing him to score the go-ahead run when Lohse bounced a pitch to Sheffield and 41-year-old catcher Pat Borders, acquired at the trade deadline from Seattle because of his experience behind the plate, couldn't stop it from bouncing away.

Mariano Rivera retired the Twins 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 11th without so much as breaking a sweat and, just like that, Minnesota went from taking their chances in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium to their season being over. It had a different feel from last year, when the Yankees knocked the Twins out of the playoffs three games to one, but really it was no different. Just like last year, the Twins took Game 1 to steal homefield advantage, dropped a heartbreaking Game 2 that they could have won, and then came home to Minnesota and lost two games in a row to end the series.

From winning Game 1 and being just three outs away from winning Game 2 to not even forcing a Game 5. It went amazingly fast, like getting run over by a pinstriped bus. There was no time to regroup and no time to settle in, because the Yankees just kept coming and coming, and the Twins just kept hemorrhaging runs. And yet, more than Nathan running out of steam in Game 2 or Rincon imploding in Game 4, what this series will likely be remembered for are Gardenhire's decisions. I'll defend what he did (or didn't do) in Game 2 all offseason, but I don't think I'll ever understand quite what went through his mind to make him take Santana out of Game 4.

There was no need for it. Santana was pitching well, he was showing no signs of getting into trouble, his pitch count hadn't even reached 90, and there was no chance of him contributing in Game 5 anyway. Taking Santana out and trusting the bullpen for four innings, even with a four-run lead, also meant that the relievers would be weaker for Game 5. It just made no sense. Gardenhire has said that Santana told him he was getting stiff between innings, but why not let Santana continue until he showed some sign of slowing down? With a four-run lead, Gardenhire certainly could have at least stayed with him until a runner got into scoring position, as I haven't heard anything about Santana actually asking out of the game.

And Gardenhire should have known better too. In Santana's last regular season start, against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 29, he was lifted with a 3-1 lead after five innings so that he could rest up for the playoffs. Santana, who was in line for his 21st win of the year, handed things over to the bullpen, and after Balfour held New York scoreless for an inning, Romero and Rincon combined to allow four runs in the bottom of the seventh, as the Yankees came back and won 5-3.

It's ironic that after consistently disagreeing with and criticizing many of Gardenhire's decisions over the years, I found myself defending him against the majority of Twins fans just a day before perhaps his strangest and least defensible decision yet. It's like setting up a crazy buddy on a blind date with a girl, telling the girl "oh yeah, he's a great guy" against your better judgment, and then hearing that he murdered her dog when the dog barked at him when he picked her up for the date. If I'd have known Gardenhire was going to go and do this, I would have just shut my mouth the other day. Now here I am having defended a crazy dog murderer.

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