Andy Pettitte and the defending World Series champions stumbled through September and landed in the AL wild-card spot.
As the Minnesota Twins can attest, the New York Yankees are hardly an underdog in October.
Pushing the home-field advantage back in Minnesota’s face, Pettitte turned in a vintage postseason performance with seven smooth innings and Lance Berkman had two big hits for New York in a 5-2 victory over the Twins on Thursday evening for a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five division series.
“Andy, when he gets in big situations, he knows how to handle it,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s not going to try to make the perfect pitch. He’s going to stay aggressive and just try to do what he does. And I think a lot of that is just from experience.”
Berkman hit a go-ahead home run in the fifth and a tiebreaking double in the seventh against Carl Pavano, sending the Twins to their 11th straight postseason loss. Eight of those have come against the Yankees, who trailed in each of those games.
Mariano Rivera got three outs for his second save of the series, extending his postseason record to 41. The road team has won all four games in the two AL playoff series.
The Twins haven’t won a postseason game since 2004, matching the Philadelphia Phillies (1915-1976) for the second-longest streak in history behind the Boston Red Sox (1986-1995) and their 13 in a row.
Berkman, yet another big-name veteran finding a place on a Yankees postseason roster, even on the downside of his career, made it 2-1 with his drive into the left-center bullpen in the fifth. His double in the seventh, one pitch after it appeared Pavano sneaked strike three past him, drove in Jorge Posada and gave New York a 3-2 lead.
“That’s why I wanted to come over here, just to get a chance to play in these games,” Berkman said.
The disputed call by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt led to the ejection of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire following Berkman’s double.
Pavano allowed 10 hits and four runs in six innings. Many fans proudly wore their pregame giveaways – fuzzy black stick-on replica mustaches in honor of his appearance.
He started strong, but the Yankees were sure on the ball in the fourth, and they really got to him in the seventh.
Derek Jeter chased his old teammate off the mound with a half-swing RBI single to make it 4-2. Curtis Granderson scored New York’s first run and came up with three more hits. And the Yankees headed back home for Game 3 on Saturday night with a commanding lead over the team they own in October.
“We’ve got a big hill to climb. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve seen it done before, and this club is never going to quit.”
Pettitte retired 12 in a row until Orlando Hudson’s homer tied it at 2 in the sixth, but after Delmon Young’s two-out triple he escaped with a weak groundout by Jim Thome. Pettitte needed only 88 pitches to finish seven innings, with five hits and two runs allowed. He walked one and struck out four.
“I just think the biggest part of it is being able to control your emotions,” Pettitte said, pointing to his “tunnel vision” in critical situations. “Nothing’s going to faze you. Nothing’s going to make you nervous.”
This was the same matchup on the mound as Game 3 of last year’s series, and despite a savvy, poised performance by Pavano, Pettitte was a step ahead.
The old man, as Hudson respectfully referred to him the night before, broke a bunch of bats and was able to escape a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the second by allowing Danny Valencia’s only sacrifice fly.
Pettitte spoke the day before about how, while he doesn’t change his approach, these October appearances simply feel different to him. As one of the Yankees’ famed Core Four, he sure would know. This was his 41st career postseason start and 19th win – both major league records.
After an outstanding first half, Pettitte strained his left groin muscle and missed two months until returning for three starts at the end of the regular season. His absence compounded concerns about the rotation, but after winning a so-so start by CC Sabathia in Game 1 and getting this vintage effort from Pettitte the Yankees don’t look as though they’ll be affected by any pitching problems.
“I think all he had to do was get to October,” Granderson said.
Before the game, Gardenhire acknowledged this was a “do-or-die” game for his team, which fell to 2-11 against the Yankees in four division series since 2003. The look changed – the Twins wore their 1961 throwback uniforms – but the plot didn’t.
So famously unflappable at home while winning the 1987 and 1991 World Series at the Metrodome, the Twins have now sent their fans home disappointed from a postseason game 10 straight times. Their last win was Game 1 of the AL championship series in 2002.
Though early-inning 1-0 deficits are hardly a hurdle for any team, the Yankees have continued to make coming back a routine while the Twins can’t break their bad habit. They don’t have a comeback victory in any of their last 22 postseason games, dating to Game 4 of the 2002 ALDS.
In their previous seven postseason losses to the Yankees, the Twins went ahead in each one. The Yankees outscored them 37-7 from the point of their biggest lead. The Twins struck first against Pettitte, but the Yankees started their attack not long after.
Even Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”’ – the ballad played often here after the seventh inning – didn’t generate much of a buzz. The crowd of 42,035 even emitted some boos after Berkman’s homer, another sign of how easily deflated these fans have become while watching their Twins lose game after game after game to the modern-day Bronx Bombers.
Minnesota’s bottom four in the batting order was a combined 0 for 10, with Valencia’s sacrifice fly.
“We’ve got to stay within ourselves and play good baseball,” right fielder Jason Kubel said. “Some day it will turn out. Just hopefully sooner rather than later.”
NOTES: The Yankees have never lost a postseason game in Minnesota, improving to 7-0. … In their 13 meetings in the playoffs since 2003, the Yankees have homered 16 times against the Twins. Fourteen of those have come in the last eight meetings.