Here it comes. You can feel the rumbling of anticipation now. Just two games into the American League playoffs, we already have a colossal collision coming into focus. The Yankees and Red Sox each faced crises on Wednesday night. Both came out inspired by symbolic heroics. Now they're like train headlights, fast approaching, at the end of each other's tunnels.
Both teams had an off day yesterday. And did they ever need it. Holding your breath for hours at a time is hard work. The Yankees can finally take a gasp of air again after escaping the Bronx with a sensational 12th-inning come-from-behind victory that may have saved their season. Instead of heading to Minnesota with a two-game deficit and 265-strikeout Johan Santana in their future -- a prospect that would've resembled a half-dug grave -- the Yankees are now all even at a game each. It's the Twins, unequal to the glare of the Big Ballpark and the Main Chance, who've probably blown their opportunity at a kill shot.
Yet, for a brief moment with the Twins up a game and ahead by a run in extra innings, the whole crux of this baseball season was thrown into jeopardy. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it was entirely plausible that the Yankees might be bounced out of the playoffs before their rematch with Boston. Come on, what else have we been waiting for the last 357 days?
Then, in an ending so splendid it actually matched the standards of last October's postseason, the Yankees did what they almost always do. They came from the edge of disaster to show once again why they are the glory and the bane of their sport.
Some will second-guess the last-inning managing of the Twins. Should ace closer Joe Nathan have pitched a third inning? Don't bother being subtle. This was the umpteenth example of the Damn Yankees just being too good, too clutch and too smart.
In grand Yankees captain style, Derek Jeter opened the game with a black-bleacher homer and ended it with base running audacity that bamboozled the Twins. That final play would ignite any team. Lord knows how much it will energize the Yankees.
Jeter scored the winning run on a short liner to right field with the Twins playing in close to prevent exactly that. Jacques Jones assumed Jeter would play by the book: go part way home, then retreat. So, Jones simply pegged the ball to his cut-off man. But Jeter tore the book to shreds. He read the ball off the bat (as well as Jones's mind) instantly. Jeter raced back to third, tagged up just as the ball hit Jones's glove and took off for home. Daring, instinct, leadership. Had Jones heaved the ball to the plate, just 200 feet away, Jeter might've looked silly. Instead, he beat the relay throw, scored cleanly and looked like the quintessential insufferably unbeatable Yankees.
As if the Yankees needed more, Alex Rodriguez was also spectacular, earning his postseason stripes with four hits, including a homer. After hitting .248 with men on base this season, and being moved up to lighter-lifting duties of a No. 2 hitter, A-Rod took a large step toward filling his quarter-billion-dollar loafers. In New York, these feats of Jeter and Rodriguez mean the world is as it should be in October. To others, it stinks. The problem? The same problem we always have. No team should have Jeter and A-Rod. It's wrong, unfair, overkill. Even Tiger Woods didn't get to marry Elin Nordegren and her twin sister Josefin.
What a shame that the Yankees stars we admire across the decades also play for the Yankees franchise we feel honor-bound to loathe. Such is the lot of the 90-plus percent of fans who don't live in New York. (Oh, and Mets fans, too.) For most of 85 years, the Yankees have been the team with the cash to grab at least two more stars than anybody deserves. Now, if we have to swallow this year's latest wave of zillionaire immigrants cast up on the Hudson's shores -- Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, who homered in Game 2 and Kevin Brown, who starts Game 3 -- will we finally gag?
Perhaps not. In a different sense, the Red Sox also got a second wind this week. That fresh breeze in their sails is the revived fastball of slumping Pedro Martinez. You remember Pedro, the perfect postseason bookend for Curt Schilling if Yankees-slaying is your battle plan. Until Wednesday night, Martinez's style and stats all season had become a near duplicate of aging Greg Maddux. Right down to Pedro allowing an alarming 26 homers. However, Martinez is five years younger than Maddox, had a 2.22 ERA just one year ago and shouldn't yet be reduced to a nibbling junk-ball pitcher.
Last week, Boston fans were perplexed, if not petrified, when Martinez gave a bizarre post-defeat news conference in which he appeared to admit that the Yankees, year after year, simply had his number. "The Yankees are my daddy," said Martinez, among several quotes, all with the same general unmistakable defeatist meaning.
Could this be the real Pedro? More likely it may have been a possum.
In Game 2 Wednesday night in Anaheim, the fire was back in Martinez's fastball. Not like it used to be, but consistently in the low 90s with movement. Just as interesting, Martinez showed the knack for "pitching backward" for one of the few times in his career -- using curves and change-ups early in counts to set up fastballs later, rather than the other way round. Almost all veterans reach such a juncture -- an admission of age that all pitchers despise. Yet once they're accepted the necessity of reversing old patterns, they frequently have a renaissance.
The rest of baseball's playoffs have their drama, too. Roger Clemens, recovering from stomach flu, looked like he belonged in bed, not on the mound against the Braves in Houston's Game 1 win in Atlanta. But he battled. With a 7-2 lead after five innings, at least he was in position to beg off, let the bullpen finish the job, pick up a cheap win and save his strength for a possible Game 5 start. Roger, you're nails. But you're also 42. Go take a shower and find a nice comfortable place to throw up.
Instead, Clemens pitched the sixth. Clemens pitched the seventh. We're all lucky Roger didn't start feeling rambunctious, come out for the eighth and flip somebody to start a little rumble.
To think, once upon a time, baseball didn't have wild cards. Games like those we're seeing this week did not exist. Rafael Furcal couldn't have hit his walk-off 11th inning home run on Thursday to tie the Braves-Astros series, giving us a second sudden-death win in 24 hours. Some foolish folks, like me, opposed the whole idea indignantly. Yet baseball's owners knew better. In fact, they almost knew better unanimously. Only one owner voted against the format. He owned the Texas Rangers.