Given the circumstances, the only real surprise from Game 1 of the ALDS is that the Twins jumped out to an early lead. After playing 12 innings to decide the AL Central crown Tuesday night and arriving in New York at about 3:30 a.m. Eastern time for a 6:07 p.m. game, the Twins drew first blood with a pair of third-inning runs before rookie Brian Duensing predictably struggled in his first taste of the playoffs, at Yankee Stadium, against the best offense in baseball (with a bespectacled Jay-Z looking on, no less).
Derek Jeter quickly erased the Twins’ early lead with a two-run homer in the next half-inning and Nick Swisher‘s run-scoring double — with the aid of shoddy throws from both left fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Orlando Cabrera–in the fourth frame gave New York the lead before the Yankees broke the game open in the fifth inning. Jeter drew a leadoff walk and came around to score on Alex Rodriguez‘s first postseason hit with runners in scoring position since approximately 1942.
With the Yankees up 4-2 manager Ron Gardenhire gave Duensing a quick hook, pulling the southpaw with two outs despite left-hander Hideki Matsui coming to the plate. Duensing held left-handed batters to just .244/.311/.268 this season, but Gardenhire chose to bring in fellow southpaw Francisco Liriano and his slightly worse .255/.325/.307 mark against lefties. Whether he thought that Duensing was tired after throwing 79 pitches or Liriano was simply a better matchup against Matsui, the move didn’t work.
Matsui got ahead of Liriano and homered on a 2-1 pitch, putting the Yankees up 6-2. New York tacked on another run against Liriano in the seventh inning, and the Twins went just 4-for-23 with four singles and one walk after scoring the pair of third-inning runs. Armed with a five-run lead and an off day next on the schedule, the Yankees’ bullpen went into full shutdown mode with Phil Hughes, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, and finally Mariano Rivera relieving CC Sabathia after his 6.2 innings of two-run ball.
Sabathia pitched well, despite some shaky work behind the plate from Jorge Posada, striking out eight, walking none and allowing just two extra-base hits after coming into the game with a 7.92 ERA in five previous playoff starts. And once armed with a lead, the Yankees’ bullpen trio of Hughes, Chamberlain and Rivera — with a little Coke mixed in against tough left-handers — is going to be awfully tough to come back on throughout the postseason.
About the only negative from the Yankees’ point of view is that Mark Teixeira went 0-for-4 and hit into a double play, but the rest of New York’s incredibly deep and dangerous lineup picked up the slack and the quintet of pitchers combined for a dozen strikeouts versus just one walk. Sabathia working into the seventh inning before handing things over to Rivera and company is a combination that looks capable of carrying the Yankees deep into October, and he’s now won seven of eight starts versus the Twins.
Luckily for the Twins, they have matchups against the far more hittable A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte before Sabathia’s turn in the rotation comes around again in Game 4, and today’s break in the schedule gives them a chance to set up their own rotation after throwing Duensing almost by default. As noted in my ALDS preview, Nick Blackburn against Burnett is the Twins’ most favorable matchup of the series, and that’s on tap when play resumes Friday night for Game 2.