Twins 2, Yankees 0
-- The blossoming legacy of 25-year-old Minnesota Twins pitcher Johan Santana, the best pitcher in baseball this season, began to be defined on a crisp October night in New York during Game 1 of the American League Division Series, when the biting wind made it difficult for him to grip a baseball. Faced with pitching without his best pitch, a change-up that has often caused opponents to stumble like caricatures, Santana, full of adrenaline, pumped his fastball past Yankees hitters and often forced them into double plays.
On a night when his manager, his catcher and he himself admitted he didn't have his best stuff, Santana shut down the Yankees for seven innings and handed his team a 2-0 win. Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth for the save.
"A lot of people were expecting me to get strikeouts," said Santana, who allowed nine hits while striking out five. "It was all about throwing the right pitch at the right time and then stay focused, stay composed all the time."
Yankees starter Mike Mussina entered the 2004 postseason as a good pitcher, certainly talented enough to be feared, but not great enough to be revered. He has never won 20 games in a year, and probably as a result has not won a Cy Young Award. Santana had yet to be defined. He arrived at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday eager to prove he was not only good, but on his way to being great.
"He was unbelievable tonight," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He kept battling and making pitches when he had to. . . . I think he pitched with a lot of heart tonight."
The Yankees gave Santana fits, though he did not fold. Santana allowed a base runner in each of his seven innings, but kept New York without a run and as a result gave the Twins a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series. Santana dominated the regular season, building an airtight case for the AL Cy Young Award with a 20-6 record, a league-best 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts. After the all-star break he was 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA.
Santana mastered the regular season, but the playoffs surely would be a different beast. His nerves surely would jangle when standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium with the crowd roaring like a tidal wave. Santana suffered early, but four double plays (the Yankees hit into five overall) helped the young left-hander escape. In the seventh Santana, received the sweetest reprieve when a Ruben Sierra home run was correctly overturned and ruled foul.
If this dying Yankees dynasty falls without a championship for the fourth consecutive year, Santana certainly will play a part. He threw only 93 pitches and it seems likely that he will be sent out to pitch Game 4, if necessary.
"That's why they took him out after the seventh," Twins catcher Henry Blanco said. "I think he's going to pitch the fourth game. I think he's going to be fine."
It was an inspired Minnesota team that headed into the playoffs, though the most inspired Twin was outfielder Jacque Jones, who arrived in New York at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday from California, where he grieved for his father, Hardy, who died of cancer last week.
"It's been long, but I've been through it," Jones said. "It's who I play for, and he knows."
Jones hoped Tuesday's game could provide an escape, a few precious moments of salvation when despair trailed thoughts of base hits and fly balls.
The first few innings appeared torturous for Jones. He struck out in the first inning with a runner on first base. In the third, he ended the inning with a double-play grounder. Teammates and coaches had asked Jones to sit out this game. Jones refused.
"They have been here for me," he said. "I just wanted to show my appreciation for these guys and what they have meant to me. The least I could do was come back and do something to contribute."
As he approached the batter's box in the sixth, his team was clinging to a 1-0 lead. On an 0-1 pitch from Mussina, Jones sent a home run over the left field fence. As he rounded first base, Jones took a slight leap and pumped his fist in the air, celebrating his first career postseason home run.
"My father, he is watching over me, over us," Jones said. "He loved me, he loved my team."
The Twins scored their first run in the third off Mussina, who allowed two runs in seven innings. Michael Cuddyer singled to start the inning, was sacrificed to second, then scored on Shannon Stewart's second hit of the game.
Last season, the Twins held the same 1-0 lead against the Yankees in their AL Division Series, but New York won the next three games. But this appears to be a different Yankees team, perhaps a more tame one. In a crucial play at home in the second inning, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada attempted to score from third on a flyout to center by John Olerud. Instead of barreling into Blanco, Posada slid harmlessly and was tagged out.
"I thought he was going to run me over," Blanco said. "But he didn't."
Instead, it was the Yankees who were run over by Santana.