Mackey: Psychological battle or not, Twins can exorcise Yankee demons
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
With the Minnesota Twins trailing last year's American League Division Series two games to none, and the New York Yankees leading Game 3, 2-1, Nick Punto led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a double against Phil Hughes, bringing Denard Span to the plate for a chance to tie the game.
Span hit a bouncer back through the box, and shortstop Derek Jeter fielded the ball before it could leak into center field. Span reached easily on an infield single, but Punto failed to pick up third base coach Scott Ullger and rounded the bag too hard.
Jeter fired to catcher Jorge Posada, who was covering third on the play, and Punto was tagged out.
Instead of having runners on the corners, trailing by one with nobody out, the Twins' rally was thwarted. They went on to lose the game and the series.
After the game, a dejected Punto said, "I'm really upset. I wanted to dig a hole and crawl inside of it. That's embarrassing and can't happen in that situation. The crowd noise got me a little. They were probably just excited that they saw there wasn't going to be a play at first base on Denard. There were 55,000 people screaming, and I felt like the ball might've got through.
"It's a huge play and I can't let that happen. It's one of those things (where) I'm kicking myself."
Fast forward to Sunday -- three days before the Twins were to rekindle their postseason relationship with the Yankees -- and Punto reflected on the blunder, saying "it was a few months" before he stopped beating himself up.
"At times I thought about it throughout the entire offseason."
Punto wasn't alone in his reflection, and the 2009 squad wasn't the only Twins team to suffer a frustrating playoff loss to the Yankees.
The Twins are 2-9 against the Yankees in postseason play since 2003, losing all three series, and they were 2-4 against New York in the regular season this year, and 16-45 in the regular season under manager Ron Gardenhire.
The Yankees' dominance over the Twins is somewhat baffling.
Yes, New York has generally entered these match-ups with better and deeper teams than the Twins, but even the best teams in baseball win only 60% of their games, yet the Yankees have taken 75% from Minnesota over the last eight years.
Some might suggest the Twins have had troubles keeping their eyes off the Yankees' pinstripes.
"It is what it is," Punto said. "Those guys have just beaten us. I don't know if it's psychological."
Nick Blackburn insists it isn't psychological.
"Maybe not so much at this point anymore. Most of these guys that are on this team have been around for a while. We've played them 10-15 times in our career or whatever... But there are several of us that are pretty new to it that I think at first there was a little bit of a shock to be playing the Yankees."
So why might the results of the 2010 ALDS be any different?
For starters, the Yankees have more flaws in 2010 than they have in previous meetings. Beyond staff ace C.C. Sabathia, who with a 3.54 FIP isn't quite as untouchable as many mainstream media members would like folks to believe, the Yankees will roll with a starting rotation of Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett.
Pettitte is currently dealing with back soreness, and since returning from a two-month stint on the disabled list with a strained groin he has pitched three times, including two clunkers in his last two starts -- a combined 7 1/3 innings where he has allowed nine earned runs (11.05 ERA), and 19 hits.
Hughes hasn't pitched seven innings since July 9.
Burnett (5.26 ERA, 4.83 FIP, plummeting strikeout rate) is suffering through the worst season of his career.
Offensively, Derek Jeter (.270/.340/.370 with 10 HRs and 84 "runs created") and Alex Rodriguez (.270/.341/.506 with 30 HRs and 88 "runs created") are having the worst seasons of their careers as well.
Now, let's not get carried away here. As a whole, the Yankees produced the most offense in baseball this season -- 5.3 runs per game, a league-leading .350 OBP and 201 home runs. And their bullpen features Mariano Rivera plus a handful of strikeout pitchers -- Kerry Wood (10.73 K/9), Dave Robertson (10.42 K/9) and Joba Chamberlain (9.67 K/9).
But the Twins, even without Justin Morneau, have one of the best offenses in baseball (4.8 runs per game, a .341 OBP, which trails only the Yankees, and 318 doubles, which ranks third in the majors), a bullpen bridge that ranks second to none, and a playoff pitching staff -- Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Blackburn -- that has been very serviceable and stable all season for the most part.
Or, in Blackburn's case, serviceable over the last month...
On top of that, at least from a psychological standpoint, the 2010 Twins roster is filled with a bunch of key players who have no connection to past Metrodome failures against New York -- Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes, J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome and Danny Valencia were not on the team prior to 2010.
Pavano is another one. Not only did he spend four injury-filled seasons in New York, but he came to Minnesota for the stretch run in 2009 and pitched against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, allowing only two earned runs on five hits in seven innings while striking out nine and walking nobody.
Pavano also pitched against the Yankees in the 2003 World Series as a member of the Florida Marlins. He allowed one earned run on seven hits in eight innings while striking out four and walking none.
"I like our team," Pavano said. "I think our team is definitely stronger going into this year."
Regarding getting swept in 2009, Pavano later added, "I think if you look at the way we went into it, we used a lot of our bullets and gas trying to get there. With the minimal amount of days off, obviously we're going to be better rested (this year). And obviously that will help. We were able to line up our rotation the way we wanted it, so that's going to help."
None of the aforementioned points guarantee anything for the Twins, who may wind up taking another Bronx beating.
But at least this time around, there seems to be a different level of confidence.
"They're a beatable team," Blackburn said.
"We can go out there and beat them, and there's no reason we shouldn't."