This was the third straight postseason series in which the Twins won the opening game. But with Saturday's elimination, they're now a collective 0-10 in every other game of those last three series. Minnesota was anxious for anything that didn't have a three in it, becoming lifetime subscribers to the theory that "bad things come in threes." Even little things like Torii Hunter flaunting theory by getting thrown out at third base for the first out in the sixth inning in Friday's flop, which contributed to the Twins' eerie ineptitude in postseason Game 3s -- Minnesota is now 1-10 all-time in Game 3s (its lone win in Game 3 came at Toronto in 1991, when former Yankee Mike Pagliarulo's homer beat Mike Timlin in the 10th inning).
Although Hunter is the No. 3 hitter in the Twins lineup, when it comes to the Yankees, leadoff man Shannon Stewart is the catalyst in their offense. Coming into the series, since becoming a Twin, Stewart was a collective 12-for-18 against the Yanks, including playoff games. He had two more hits in the opening game against Mike Mussina. In the
next three losses though, New York held Stewart to a leadoff infield single in Game 4 and a sacrifice fly in
17 plate appearances. New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and manager Joe Torre wouldn't admit to any adjustments with their pitchers to counter Stewart. Stottlemyre said the Yankees were "making good pitches against him," which they hadn't been doing while he "wore us out." They will need to have a similar effect on Johnny Damon.
The Yankees are directly responsible for Minnesota's recent emptiness in Game 3s. No current manager has more experience in short series' or places more emphasis on what he calls the "swing" game than Joe Torre. To show how little Game 1 means to him, the only year they lost a first-round series this century was when they won Game 1
against the Angels in 2002. So determining who will pitch that pivotal game is a bigger decision to Torre then who opens a playoff. In the past, the Yankees had a gaudy assortment of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, David Cone, and Jimmy Key to choose from. Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez are the only holdovers, but both were coming off arm injuries. El Duque was unavailable after developing a "dead arm" in the final week of the season. Compounding the problem was Javier Vazquez winning only one of his last nine starts, Esteban Loaiza deteriorating to sporadic bullpen use and Kevin Brown's most effective recent pitch coming left-handed, into a wall. Even considering all that, Torre looked me in the eye when asked to compare lining up those past heavyweights to this threadbare bunch and said "it's fun" trying to piecemeal this assortment into a postseason rotation.
Challenging might be a more apt adjective, especially with Brown saying, "they must have seen something in my side sessions. It's not like I stunk out there, and they said 'let's go ahead and use him anyway.' " As Stottlemyre saw it, Brown "basically talked his way into" that disastrous return in Boston. But Brown earned his postseason shot last
weekend against Toronto for "the way he got them out," meaning the likes of Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells.
For Brown, the broken left hand is no longer much of an issue in his effectiveness, but rather the chronic back pain that's plagued him much of his career which could result in more surgery this offseason. The limitations on his motion and follow-through are almost painful to watch, but Brown says he couldn't begin to try and describe the pain he goes through to execute his livelihood. Giving up one run Friday with the limitations and stuff he had was an inspired effort.
I asked famed back-pain sufferer Don Mattingly if he ever swaps back trauma tales with Brown. The Yankees' hitting coach said he hadn't. Mattingly finally had surgery after he retired and leads a "pretty normal life now, as long as I don't play 36 holes of golf or fish for 12 hours or anything crazy like that."
Fellow All-Star first baseman and retiree Kent Hrbek stopped by the batting cage in the Metrodome to chat with Mattingly and ask if he liked his job. Mattingly said, "yeah, but there's a lot more work involved
than people think." Mattingly would probably love to trade places with Hrbek for a while. The native Minnesotan hosts a hunting and fishing show for a Minneapolis TV station, which broadcasts throughout the Dakotas and the upper Midwest. Asked if he resented Mattingly for taking nine Gold Gloves and leaving none for him, Hrby said "naw, he doesn't have one of these," showing off his huge 1987 World Series ring. Hrbek spent Game 3 in the front row with Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. They were joined by Tony Oliva, who's overdue for enshrinement. Even in that accomplished company, Hrbek was the only one with a championship ring.
For all he's already accomplished, Alex Rodriguez doesn't have one either. During batting practice before Game 2 of the series, I asked A-Rod how different this was for him than his time in Seattle or Texas, or his other playoff experience. "No different. It's still the same game," he insisted. After his homer and 12th-inning, ground-rule double
helped even the series, as we waited to do the postgame interview with a sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd still roaring, he allowed this: "You were right, it is different here." Rodriguez's manager, coaches and teammates knew that when he first came over, especially with A-Rod no longer being the unchallenged best player on his team and adjusting to a new position. With the prompting of columnists and radio talk shows, Yankees fans sunk to riding their new third baseman for an inability to produce with runners on base. Finally against Toronto the last week of August, Rodriguez's game-winning, two-run single in the ninth broke out of a season long shell that had him hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position. Mattingly says that was a turning point for A-Rod. He hasn't stopped producing since and has been a major force out of the two hole for New York so far in the postseason.
Derek Jeter has four rings, and like Rodriguez, a very protective facade which is nearly impenetrable by a probing media. He dispenses information nearly as safely and homogenously as a politician. I wondered if taking batting practice during the postseason is any different from any others. Does he work on anything special this time
of year, even during BP? "Not really, I go to right field all the time anyway, so I don't really have to work on that. I just try to get loose, get my swing loose. Break a sweat."
Unlike most players, Jeter rarely homers during batting practice. Next in the cage, however, was Gary Sheffield, whose thunderous poundings of the cowhide is even more harrowing than his in-game assaults. Sheffield parked the next BP pitch into the black section of the right-field bleachers, leaving Jeter in awe. At least it looked that way. In his
first at-bat against Brad Radke, after hitting just two homers in batting practice, Jeter became just the third player to reach the black seats in a postseason game. The first to do it was merely Reggie Jackson in his famous three-homer game of the 1977 World Series.
Like Alex Rodriguez, Kenny Lofton is hoping that putting on pinstripes will help him finally get the championship he's come close to with the 1995 Indians, 2002 Giants and last year's Cubs. However, the well-traveled center fielder didn't think he'd be earning it from the bench. Before his Game 3 start in the Metrodome as the designated hitter, he hadn't even been used as a pinch-runner. Lofton again rode the pine in the clincher. The Yankees motto is "11", the number of wins it takes to win the championship. With that in mind, Torre told the six-time All-Star to be ready. "We're gonna need you if we play as many games as we hope to," Torre said. It didn't sit well with Lofton, who clearly doesn't like sitting. "I've never not started a postseason game," Lofton said. "It doesn't matter who's pitching, Randy Johnson, Jarrod Washburn, Dontrelle Willis, Tom Glavine. I've always been in the lineup." But when pressed to pick between starting for a lesser team or being in position for his first ring, Lofton conceded he'd choose the Yankees. "You start to realize there are only so many at-bats left in your career, so many opportunities," Lofton said. "I'm glad I've got another one. You don't know if you'll get here again."
Pat Borders has two rings and a World Series MVP with the Blue Jays, but that was more than a decade ago. Now 41, ancient for any pro athlete let alone a catcher, Borders has been hanging on at the Triple-A level for the past three seasons and came to the Twins in an innocuous minor deal with the Mariners at the deadline. Borders admits he occasionally hears "Crash Davis," alluding to his similarities to the main character in Bull Durham. He was thrilled for the opportunity of another postseason. "Just taking it all in," he said. Borders found himself constantly gazing around at Yankee Stadium and in the Metrodome saying, "isn't this fun, look at this! In the past I'd just be worrying
about what the signs were, now I'm enjoying it, having fun."
Although Ron Gardenhire and opposing manager Joe Torre are two of the most respected managers in the majors, there are distinct differences between the duelists. Operating with about a third of the payroll Torre has at his disposal, you can see the distinction in how their offices are decorated. Gardenhire's in the Metrodome is about a third the size of Torre's. When we came in to discuss strategy before Game 3, we interrupted Gardy downloading music on his computer. Now you don't picture an avid bowler and son of an Army Sargent to be listening to Outkast, but there he was sorting through their titles looking for "I Like The Way You Move." Said Gardenhire: "I love that song they play when Ruben Sierra hits, I've got to have that." This also from the man who has a foot-tall bust of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in his office and
a sign on his bulletin board to remind him to take care of wife Carol's tickets for all home games. By contrast, Torre's looks like a combination boardroom and barroom. There's a framed picture of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, a signed photo by Muhammad Ali and signed boxing gloves from Vladimir and Vitaly Klitschko from the night they
threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. One of Joe's prized possessions is a set of perfectly detailed figurines from the 1932 Yankees on the shelf above one for his own 1998 championship team. Torre got the first sets from the Franklin Mint, which has since gone on to create reproductions of other famous teams of the past from New York and other cities that the general public can now buy. For now, Torre remains the only one with a chance to manage another Yankees team to immortality.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.