October 9, 2004
ALDS, Game Four
Yankees Lead Series, 2-1
Yankees: Derek Jeter (SS), Alex Rodriguez (3B), Gary Sheffield (RF), Hideki Matsui (LF), Bernie Williams (CF), Jorge Posada (C), Ruben Sierra (DH), Jon Olerud (1B), Miguel Cairo (2B), Javier Vasquez (P)
Twins: Shannon Stewart (DH), Jacque Jones (RF), Torii Hunter (CF), Justin Morneau (1B), Corey Koskie (3B), Lew Ford (LF), Cristian Guzman (SS), Michael Cuddyer (2B), Henry Blanco (C), Johan Santana (P)
Javier Vasquez was the epitome of consistency. He was never great, but he was always above average, and he was always there. In a career spanning 14 years, he averaged 203 innings and 32 starts per season. It's almost impossible to find that kind of consistency in baseball.
Traded by the Expos to the Yankees in December of 2003, Vasquez's one year in New York was a microcosm of his career: moments where the greatness everyone thought was there flashed for a while, and then was eventually replaced by giving up a big inning or having a bad couple of weeks. He didn't come through today, either, as he put his team in a pretty big hole.
The Twins scored early, leveraging leadoff singles from Shannon Stewart and Jacque Jones into a run. A strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play ended the inning, but any lead is better than no lead. Hideki Matsui drove in Derek Jeter with a single off of Johan Santana in the third to tie the game.
Yet the crowd was never anything short of raucous in its support for the Twins, or for Santana in particular. When he struck out Jeter to end the fourth and strand two runners, the throng lost its collective mind. When Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau and Corey Koskie combined for a run in the fifth, it was pure mayhem. The fifth inning was an absolute blitzkrieg of crowd support as a clearly shaken Vasquez struggled to maintain any semblance of authority on the mound, giving up a leadoff homer to Henry Blanco before loading the bases by hitting Koskie. And when Lew Ford doubled to left to score two more runs, you'd be forgiven for believing the game was over even if there were four innings left to play.
Both Santana and Vasquez were done after five; Vasquez simply because he was done, and Santana because he was nursing something. Three Minnesota singles couldn't score a run in the sixth, but a 26-year old Grant Balfour held serve, striking out Miguel Cairo and sending down Jeter on strikes for the third time in the game. He moved the team into the top of the eighth, holding a 5-1 lead.
Juan Rincon imploded before our very eyes. 2004 was Rincon's best season, and he had a few. But the 25-year old set-up man blew it. An infield single, a wild pitch, a walk. A single to score a run and then, finally, a strikeout for the first out of the inning. And then...
...and then Ruben Sierra. Sierra launched a three-run homer over the wall in right-center field, tying the game at five and bringing the noise level in the Metrodome to silence and eventually a series of boos. Rincon had to pitch to Jon Oledrud; his collapse had been so sudden that Joe Nathan hadn't had time to finish warming up. Olerud doubled, and Gardy went to Nathan.
Nathan got the last two outs, and then got three more in the ninth. Tom Gordon struck out Jacque Jones and Justin Morneau to send the game into extra innings.
Kyle Lohse and Mariano Rivera traded zeroes in the tenth. In the eleventh, Jeter led off the inning by striking out for the fourth time in the game. The crowd was back in the game. But A-Rod doubled, stole third, and then scored on a wild pitch. Minnesota had no answer in the bottom of the eleventh, as Jose Offerman, Matt LeCroy, and Shannon Stewart went quietly.
The loss, and the Yankees, sent the Twins home in the divisional round for the second year in a row. The Twins had scored first in every game but couldn't turn those advantages into wins. Sure, New York was a heavy favorite, but the Twins and definitely the fans felt like Minnesota was good enough and perhaps even should have beaten the Yankees.
It wasn't to be. New York was the better team, but if it's any consolation, that season the Bombers became the first team in the history of the game to lose a series after being up three games to none. The Red Sox took four in a row in the ALCS, propelling them to a victory over the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.