One thing to remember about the playoffs is that it isn't always the best team that wins, but the team that plays the best in October. This year, more than any other in recent memory, any of the eight playoff teams has a good chance to win it all, although the matchups are tougher for some teams.
For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't get a favorable matchup vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. If the Dodgers had played the Atlanta Braves or Houston Astros, they would have had a better chance of lasting deep into the playoffs. But most people agree that the Cardinals are the best team in the National League, and they're my favorite to advance to the World Series (and maybe to win it all).
In the American League, I broadcast ALDS Game 2 between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night, and it was one of the most interesting games I've covered in a long time. Strange things seem to happen at Yankee Stadium -- whether it's the mystique of the Stadium itself or just the aura around the Yankees.
Last year in the ALCS, ex-Red Sox manager Grady Little left Pedro Martinez on the Yankee Stadium mound too long. If he hadn't, Boston could have gone to the World Series.
It's questionable whether Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire left closer Joe Nathan in the game too long Wednesday night. Nathan pitched 2-2/3 scoreless and hitless innings before surrendering a game-tying double to Alex Rodriguez in the 12th inning.
There have been other Yankee Stadium moments, of course. In 2001, in back-to-back World Series games at the Stadium, the Yankees got game-tying home runs with two outs in the ninth inning against Byung-Hyun Kim and the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 1977, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three consecutive pitches as the Yankees clinched the world championship with a victory in Game 6.
Rivera fresh for Game 3, but not Nathan
While Gardenhire's decision was questionable to some, we know for certain that the bullpen decisions he and Joe Torre made in Game 2 will affect the rest of the series.
Torre, who always seems to make the right moves in October, decided that he wouldn't send closer Mariano Rivera out for a third inning in Game 2. Rivera uncharacteristically blew the save after entering the game with one out in the eighth inning and the Yankees ahead 5-3. After Rivera held the Twins in the ninth, Torre sent Tanyon Sturtze to the mound in the 10th.
That will have positive ramifications for the Yankees for the rest of the series. Torre will have a fresh Rivera for Game 3 on Friday.
Contrast that with the situation facing Gardenhire, who won't have a fresh Nathan for Game 3. I believe Gardenhire planned to use Nathan for two innings, but when the Twins took the lead in the top of the 12th, he decided to send his closer out for a third inning. On the surface, that might look like a mistake, but it was one of those really tough decisions that managers must make in the postseason.
It wouldn't have been a tough decision in the regular season, because then I believe Gardenhire would have lifted Nathan after two innings.
The problem in this instance was that Nathan had already thrown about 40 pitches in the 10th and 11th. Moreover, when Derek Jeter and A-Rod batted in the 12th, they had already seen Nathan (in the 10th). Normally, of course, a hitter sees a closer only once in a game. But the second time they faced him Jeter drew a walk, and A-Rod (4-for-6, 3 RBI, HR) hit a game-tying ground-rule double to deep left-center.
Remember, it almost always works in a hitter's favor when he's facing a pitcher a second or third time. That's why it's tougher to be a starter, who generally faces hitters at least three times per game.
When a pitcher faces hitters more than once, he must be able to change his patterns to keep them off-balance. Relievers and closers usually have just two pitches -- Nathan has a fastball and a slider, Rivera a fastball and cut fastball -- so it's harder to keep hitters off-balance that second time facing them. Most starters have a breaking ball and changeup to go with the fastball.
Gardenhire had to go for jugular
I definitely understood Gardenhire's decision regarding Nathan. If Nathan had closed the game out, we'd all be saying it was a brilliant move. Last year the Twins came into New York and won Game 1 of the ALDS (just as they did this year). But they lost the next game in New York and two in a row in Minnesota. Series over.
So despite Minnesota's 1-0 series lead, I think Gardenhire felt that Game 2 was as important to the Twins as it was to the Yankees. I agree with that assessment. Going home with a 2-0 lead would have given the Twins the cushion of needing just one win in Minnesota to clinch the series ... and to avoid returning to a hostile Yankee Stadium for a deciding Game 5.
To me, that's why Gardenhire took chances he wouldn't have taken under normal circumstances, doing all he could to win Game 2. He decided to go for the jugular. Once you get the Yankees down, you better finish them off. I agree with that approach. Managers sometimes have to manage differently in the postseason, but in Game 2 it backfired for Gardenhire and the Twins.
For Gardenhire's plan to backfire, a number of Yankees had to come up big — and they did, from starter Jon Lieber to A-Rod to Jeter.
There was a big question mark surrounding Lieber, since this was his first postseason appearance. On top of that, the Yankees were down 1-0 in the series. Lieber pitched 6-2/3 strong innings, and when he left the Yankees had a 4-3 lead.
Sturtze also pitched well in his 2-2/3 innings of relief, despite giving up the go-ahead home run to Torii Hunter in the 12th inning. On the other side, the Twins' bullpen was tremendous, pitching no-hit baseball for five innings.
Meanwhile, Jeter scored the winning run on a great baserunning play. With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 12th, Hideki Matsui hit a line drive at drawn-in right fielder Jacque Jones. Ninety percent of major-league baserunners wouldn't have returned to third base quickly enough to be able to tag. The natural instinct on a line drive is to go down the line and then go back to tag. But Jeter tagged right away.
Jeter always seems to make the right play at the right time.
Remember his backhanded relay flip to catcher Jorge Posada to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate in pivotal Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS vs. the Oakland Athletics? Jeter's baserunning play wasn't as dramatic as that, but it still helped the Yankees win another postseason game.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years).