In the Yankees’ three-game playoff sweep, the Yankees displayed superior starting pitching, relief pitching, power hitting, clutch hitting, defense, baserunning, bench and managing*. The Twins excelled in…nothing I can think of. How do you explain the one-sided nature of a series between two teams that finished only one game apart over the regular season?
First, their similarity of record was largely a chimera. The Twins amassed wins over weak Central Division teams, while the Yankees’ schedule largely consisted of the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles. Based on head-to-head competition, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the Twins would have finished fifth in the Eastern Division this year.
Going down their lineups, one to nine, there wasn’t a Twin I would take over the corresponding Yankee. Yes, Mauer has a higher average than Texeira, but which would you consider more dangerous in a playoff game? Same for Delmon Young v. Alex Rodriguez.
Still, talent in baseball, unlike football, only counts for so much. The best Major League team will lose a third of its games, and the worst will win a third. So talent alone can’t explain the Twins have lost nine straight playoff games to the Yanks. For this, we have to look at intangibles. One, confidence is key in any sport. How can the Twins have it when they know they always lose to New York, not only in the playoffs, but in the regular season? Two, experience adds to that confidence. The Yankees are veterans who have been in pressure games so often before. Rivera, Pettite, Jeter, et al.? You know they won’t feel intimidated. Even newcomers like Lance Berkman and Curtis Granderson bring experience. Can we say the same about Brian Duensing, Jesse Crain, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia? Conversely, Jason Kubel does have playoff experience with the Twins, but his experience consists of hitting 2-for-29. Third, team makeup. The Twins are a solid, unspectacular team, built for the long haul of a 162-game season, not prone to beating themselves or going into prolonged slumps. Without Morneau, there is no one who can carry the team, like A-Rod or Texeira can. There is no dominant pitcher, like Halladay or Lincecum or Lee. They need several players to be hot at the same time.
Which leads us to Four, the final ingredient of momentum. If the Twins had ended the season on a hot streak, they might have carried more confidence, some mojo, into the playoffs. Instead, they sputtered the last two weeks of the season, playing by far their worst ball, losing eight out of ten. Every one of the starting pitchers had a bad outing. Mauer, their best player, was hurt, and never returned to form.
When Cuddyer opened the series with a two-run homer and Hudson scored another run on hustle, it seemed that the Twins might overcome both the immediate and the recent past and make a real run at the Yankees. But once the New Yorkers came back and eliminated this early lead, all spark and all hope seemed to drain from the Twins, from their fans, and from Yankee-haters around the country.
*while the other categories are supported by obvious statistics, the judgment of managing is more subjective. Using hindsight as my guide, however, I can’t help but criticize Gardenhire’s batting Kubel cleanup in Game 3, pitching Crain in relief in Game 1, leaving Liriano in to face Granderson in Game 1 and failing to be aggressive in the two games Span led off with a single. There was nothing illogical about any of his moves; it’s just that all his hunches proved wrong.