Yanks steal their way into ALCS

MINNEAPOLIS -- Beware, Red Sox fans. Now the Yankees are winning on wild pitches.

They've won thanks to 12-year-old spoiled brats sitting in the bleachers. They've won thanks to Hall of Fame pitchers firing 95-mile fastballs, nasty sliders and the jagged shards of a broken bat. They've won thanks to shortstops making defensive plays so spectacular they should be accompanied by lion tamers, human cannonballs and a Volkswagen Bug stuffed with a half-dozen clowns.

And, of course, they've won thanks to multi-millionaire, pinstriped sluggers swatting game-ending home runs so far they don't show up again until they're posted on eBay.

But Saturday the Yankees won on a slider in the dirt that a 41-year-old catcher didn't block.

"That's going to be on my mind the whole offseason,"Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "'Man, they won on a wild pitch.'"

Well, officially, it was a wild pitch. But in reality, catcher Pat Borders should have been charged with a passed ball in the top of the 11th inning when he failed to block the pitch that allowed Alex Rodriguez to score from third base and cap New York's 6-5 come-from-behind victory in Game 4 of its division series with Minnesota.

So despite being shut out in Game 1, despite trailing by a run in the bottom of the 12th in Game 2, despite starting a pitcher with a broken hand in Game 3 and despite trailing 5-1 in the eighth inning of Game 4, the Yankees are returning to the American League Championship Series for another showdown with the rival Red Sox.

Gentlemen, start your hyperbole.

"I've had private conversations with [Red Sox general manager] Theo Epstein this season about how it should come down to us two," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "We're the two best teams in the league -- everyone knows it -- and we both knew that if we took care of business we'd be playing in the championship series.

"I don't know how much higher the level can get with Boston, but we'll give it the old college try and I'm sure we'll take it higher," he said.

What with Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, the league's best offense, Johnny Damon's hair and, well, the law of averages, Red Sox fans are feeling awfully confident. But the Yankees won 101 games, they have home-field advantage and, well, they are still the Yankees, the team that drives everyone else crazy by winning time and time again in the end.

As exhausted Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after watching New York pickpocket his team yet again, "They find a way."

Of course, it helps to have a $185 million payroll that is more than $130 million higher than the Twins'.

"It's easy for you writers because you're not sitting in that dugout watching 747 after 747 coming to the plate for them," Gardenhire said. "You're not seeing A-Rod, a guy who's like 6-6, standing on second base and then stealing third and diving into the bag."

Ah, yes. A-Rod. The player at the epicenter of this year's Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Boston tried to trade for him last winter, couldn't quite pull the trigger and then watched in horror when the Yankees dealt for the league's best and highest-paid player. He hit a disappointing (for him) .286 with 36 home runs and struggled with runners in scoring position during the regular season, but he came up big in this series. He had the huge game-tying double in the 12th inning in Game 2 and he was the difference again in the 11th inning in Game 4.

After Minnesota starter Johan Santana pretty much silenced New York for five innings, the Yankees rallied for four runs in the eighth off Twins reliever Juan Rincon, with Ruben Sierra delivering a three-run homer to tie the game at 5. It was a startlingly quick turn of events, but at least we're used to that sort of thing from the Yankees. They came back to win a major league-record 61 times during the regular season and three times during this series.

Even so, the game-winning rally in the 11th really stretched credibility.

Rodriguez hit a one-out double into the left field corner when third baseman Corey Koskie failed to guard the line properly. All the focus is on Rodriguez's power but he also is a superb base stealer -- he swiped 28 bases in 32 attempts this season -- and as he took his lead from second, he saw that reliever Kyle Lohse wasn't paying him much attention, probably because Gary Sheffield was commanding most of it at the plate.

"I think what makes you a winning player is you have to do the little things," Rodriguez said. "You can't always play big ball. I thought there was a window of opportunity with Lohse and I told Sheffield before I was going to bat, 'Sheff, I'm going to steal the first two pitches.' "

The Twins were aware Rodriguez might steal third and they tried to get Borders' attention so they could tell him to give Lohse a sign to spin and fake a throw to second that would force A-Rod back to the bag. Borders never heard them amid the noise of the Metrodome crowd and Rodriguez stole third uncontested. He came home two pitches later when a slider bounced in the dirt and off Borders' glove.

"You know, if Sheffield, who's killed the ball all year, bangs one up the middle to score Rodriguez, well, you just tip your cap to him," Gardenhire said. "But it's kind of sad that you lose on a pitch in the dirt that we didn't block.

"You've got to give Rodriguez credit, though. He saw the chance and he made the play. If he gets thrown out there, you guys are killing him. But he made the play," he said.

Probably the only people more upset than the Twins were the Red Sox, who would have been a huge beneficiary if Minnesota had forced a fifth game that would have required Mike Mussina to start. Instead, New York's ace will be ready for Game 1 Tuesday.

"We were talking before the game, 'We've got to win today,' " Cashman said. "We knew we had a good shot at the championship series and it was vital that we could line up our pitching because we've been dealing with a lot of stuff lately. But this win lines us up the way we wanted."

The Yankees entered this season with a lot of questions regarding their rotation. Game 2 starter Jon Lieber had never pitched in the postseason while Game 3 starter Kevin Brown had pitched only 5 2/3 innings the past month. And while there are still some questions around Javier Vazquez and Orlando Hernandez (will El Duque ever be able to pitch?), Lieber and Brown eased a lot of the Yankees' concerns heading into the Boston series.

Plus, the Yankees are the Yankees. And somehow, no matter what, no matter how, they usually win.

We all know how it goes by now. The opposing managers forget the phone number to the bullpen. The shortstop tosses out a runner at home with a no-look shovel pass. The third baseman slams a pitch deep into the night. The closer strides to the mound and shuts off the stadium lights.

And now, a slider in the dirt bounces to the backstop.

"Every day, every game like this," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "you think you've never seen one like it and all of a sudden, another one pops up."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.