A-Rod, Posada HRs help Yanks complete sweep of Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Alex Rodriguez finally delivered the playoff performance he needed and his talent demanded, powering the New York Yankees back to the AL Championship Series.

During this first-round sweep of the Twins, Rodriguez's performance was nothing like all those oh-fers of Octobers past.

Rodriguez and Jorge Posada hit seventh-
inning home runs to spoil Carl Pavano's opportunity to frustrate New Yorkers one more time, and the Yankees advanced to their first ALCS in five years with a 4-1 victory over Minnesota on Sunday night.

Rodriguez got off to a rocky start this year when he admitted in spring training to using steroids when he was with the Texas Rangers. Then he had hip surgery and missed the first month of the season as the Yankees stumbled out of the gate.

But baseball's highest-paid player returned with a more positive outlook, and New York surged to the top of the AL East.

Still, the third baseman entered this postseason in an 0-for-27 slide with runners on base dating to Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

"I knew that I couldn't change all the 0-for-4s, 0-for-5s and all the guys I left on base," said Rodriguez, who went 5 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs in these three games. "I'm content right now, both on and off the field."

Mariano Rivera got the last four outs in the final baseball game at the Metrodome, preserving Andy Pettitte's record-tying 15th career postseason win.

The Yankees will host the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of the ALCS on Friday night after missing the playoffs altogether in 2008.

"It's exciting," Rodriguez said. "We were very disappointed last year when we went home, and ownership got us some good players. We came out and played like a team, like a group of brothers."

Teammate Derek Jeter offered plenty of praise.

"The most impressive thing? He hit home runs when we needed him to," Jeter said. "He's been doing it all year really. He's been seeing the ball well the whole year."

This pitching duel between former teammates Pettitte and Pavano ended with another first-round playoff victory in Minnesota for the Yankees, who also eliminated the Twins here in 2003 and 2004.

"I was trying to match zeros with him," Pettitte said.

For all their success this decade by being so good at the basics, the Twins made glaring gaffes at the worst times. Doing that against the team that led the majors with 103 wins doomed them.

"It seems like just yesterday that we were pouring champagne for winning the division, and now it's over," catcher Joe Mauer said. "It just burns that we're done. I'm still trying to figure that one out."

The Yankees aren't about to let an opponent get away with overrunning the bases, as Carlos Gomez did in Game 2 to cost the Twins a run. Nick Punto then wasted his leadoff double in the eighth by failing to see that Denard Span's single didn't get past shortstop Jeter, and he was thrown out trying to retreat to third base.

Posada, who was upset when he was benched for Jose Molina with A.J. Burnett on the mound on Friday, gave Rivera more room with an RBI single in a two-run ninth as the crowd began to file out of the Dome for the final time.

Pettitte, who retired 17 of the first 18 batters he faced, left Joba Chamberlain a 2-1 lead with one out in the seventh. He matched John Smoltz for postseason victories, getting his first such win for the Yankees since the 2003 World Series against Pavano's Florida Marlins, who won it all that year.

The Yankees haven't experienced that euphoria since 2000, with the Pettitte-Posada battery, closer Rivera and captain Jeter the only pieces left from that squad.

"Up and down, there's no room to breathe," Twins first baseman Michael Cuddyer said. "That's why they spent all that money in the offseason, for this time of year."

Rivera came in to get Mauer on a bat-shattering groundout to end the eighth after the Twins blew their chance to score against Phil Hughes because of Punto's blunder. Manager Ron Gardenhire put his hands to his head in exasperation, and Orlando Cabrera followed with a flyout to center that could've got the run in.

"They deserve all the accolades. They've got the whole deal, and they've got some of the classiest guys out on the field," Gardenhire said. "I hate it when we play against them, because they kill us."

The Twins left 26 runners on base over the first two games, including 17 in the 11-inning defeat in Game 2, failing to get those big hits.

Pavano couldn't have started any stronger against the team that couldn't wait to get rid of him after four forgettable seasons. He struck out four during the first trip through baseball's best lineup -- the Yankees led the majors in runs, homers and on-base percentage during the regular season -- and the only hit he gave up in the first four innings didn't make it out of the infield.

Effectively spotting his changeup and sinker, Pavano completed seven innings with a season-high nine strikeouts and no walks.

"He was tough," Posada said. "You've got to give a lot of credit to him."

The last professional baseball game under this billowing roof was supposed to be a week ago. After beating Detroit in an AL Central tiebreaker on Tuesday night, here the Twins were, playing in front of another packed stadium.

They made every game down the stretch count for more than just a last-chance-to-see-the-Metrodome memory, catching Detroit with 17 wins in their last 21 games including that epic tiebreaker game for the division title on Tuesday.

Ah, but these Yankees aren't the same as the Tigers or the White Sox or the Royals, as the Twins were painfully reminded during the first two games in New York -- and again on Sunday.

Mauer's two-out single in the sixth justified the "MVP!" chants, gave the Twins their first lead at home over the Yankees in four games this year.

Pettitte, who became the major league leader in career postseason innings pitched, snapped back to strike out Cuddyer on a high fastball. The 37-year-old left-hander pumped his fist as he headed to the dugout.

Then Pavano's performance was quickly blemished by the big opposite-field homers by Rodriguez and Posada. Rodriguez had fallen behind 0-and-2 before working the count full. Just like that, the Yankees were back in front.

Game notes
Pavano's nine strikeouts marked a Twins record for a postseason game. ... Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who has been on the staff since 1981, threw out the honorary first pitch. ... The Yankees are 51-1 this season when limiting their opponent to two runs or less. ... The Yankees went 5-5 against the Angels this season.