GAME 1 KEY MOMENT
The Minnesota Twins entered the eighth inning of Wednesday’s Game 1 trailing the New York Yankees 6-4 and knowing that time was running out if they wanted to make a comeback. The Yankees turned to reliever Kerry Wood to pitch the inning and to be the bridge to Mariano Rivera.
Wood started the inning by striking out Michael Cuddyer swinging. But he ran into trouble by walking Jason Kubel and allowing an infield single to rookie Danny Valencia. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire inserted pinch-runners Jason Repko and Matt Tolbert to relace Kubel and Valencia and No. 9 hitter J.J. Hardy advanced them by grounding out to second baseman Robinson Cano for the second out.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi summoned Rivera from the bullpen to face lefty swinging leadoff hitter Denard Span and this proved to be the key moment of Game 1.
To say Rivera is the dominant reliever of the modern baseball era is putting it mildly. Rivera entered Wednesday’s game with 39 postseason saves. The next closest reliever to him is the Phillies’ closer Brad Lidge with – get this – 16!
But the Twins knew this two-out opportunity with runners at second and third was their best chance to, not only tie the game, but to make a statement they were in this series to end the domination of the Yankees.
Rivera started Span off with his patented cutter inside on the hands of Span, however, Span laid off and the pitch was way inside.
Down 1-0, Rivera tried another cutter inside but lower in the strike zone. Span chose to let it go and it too was called a ball by home-plate umpire Jerry Crawford.
Span geared up for something to hit, knowing he was up in the count 2-0. Catcher Jorge Posada, sticking to the scouting report on Span, signaled for another cutter inside. But the great Rivera, known for his impeccable control, missed inside once again.
Could this be the moment the Twins had finally seized control? Another ball would load the bases for Orlando Hudson. A base hit to the outfield would tie the game.
Posada and Rivera stuck to the game plan and tried yet another cutter inside. Though the pitch actually missed the strike zone, Crawford gave Rivera the strike call.
Rivera kept the pressure on by aiming yet another cutter inside. Span was tied up and the ball darted down and in as he swung. He fouled it off harmlessly off to the right.
Though Rivera has been known to try to back-door two-seam fastballs to the outside corner, Posada called for a sixth consecutive cutter inside and Rivera nodded in agreement. With 42,302 fans watching and most of them on their feet at Target Field, Rivera went into his stretch and bent at the waist to his set.
With the game and the lead on the line Rivera again threw his bread-and-butter cutter. Span, protecting the plate on the full count, swung his bat. But the darting cutter jammed him and the bat practically shattered on contact.
As Span sped from the batter’s box down the line, the ball rolled slowly to shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter, knowing Span had great speed, charged the ball hard, picked it out of his glove and threw in one motion to first.
Though it looked at first that Span might beat it, Jeter’s laser-like throw to first baseman Mark Teixeira reached Teixeira’s glove a step before Span hit the first base bag. First-base umpire Hunter Wendelstedt raised his right arm and called Span out.
Gardenhire, his team and the Twins fans collectively groaned as Rivera headed to the Yankees’ dugout. The future Hall of Fame closer would later pitch a “four-out” ninth inning to record his 40th postseason save and the Yankees would take Game 1 and wrest home-field advantage away from the Twins in the best-of-five series.