NEW YORK -- The longest-tenured New York Yankees could be forgiven if they believed they were playing a mirror image of themselves Tuesday -- themselves circa 1998.
While many of the Yankees were flailing at the first pitch they saw or failing to cut off balls in the gap or sailing their throws, the Minnesota Twins came out and played the Yankees' old small-ball style with a steadiness and precision, even calm, that was impressive. The Twins pitched tough. They played airtight defense. Every time the Yankees made a mistake, the Twins cashed in. Then, with the Yankee Stadium crowd of 56,292 howling, the Twins' deep bullpen slammed the door.
Sound familiar? "Yeah, well, last year people were asking us if Anaheim was the team we used to be," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said with a small grin. It was meant to convey his amusement, his undented confidence, and a sort of unspoken understanding that come this morning, Tuesday's 3-1 loss in Game 1 of this Division Series would be inflated into a gargantuan setback around New York.
"It's just one game," Twins setup man LaTroy Hawkins said, same as everyone else. But for the Yankees, it was and it wasn't.
The winning formula that the Twins found while becoming the American League's hottest team since the All-Star break is the same formula the Yankees lost sometime between their Game 7 loss in the 2001 World Series to Arizona and now.
With Tuesday's loss, the two-year, 13-game winning streak against the Twins that the Yankees brought into this game and that 20-2 career mark Yankees starter Mike Mussina had against Minnesota were instantly rendered moot. The only Yankees streak that really matters now is that they've lost six of their last seven postseason games, either by blowout or breakdowns uncharacteristic for them back when they were winning championships, not just division titles. And the Twins feel it, same as Anaheim did last year.
"Everyone in here knows we can take it to this team -- we're a confident team," Twins right-fielder Jacque Jones said.
These Yankees don't scare anyone anymore. The Yankees merely get the usual professional respect. They no longer seem to have the patent on belief-defying wins, cobbling together magical innings, or getting the sort of inexplicable breaks that left other teams muttering that maybe there was something to all that endless talk about the Yankees' mystique.
When Twins left-fielder Shannon Stewart made a leaping catch against the leftfield wall to rob Hideki Matsui of a double in the bottom of the ninth, the effect was a lot like the running, rally-killing catch that Anaheim's Garret Anderson made on Jeter in last year's Division Series. Yesterday, as he did then, Yankees Manager Joe Torre found himself saying that without Stewart's gem, "Who knows what would have happened?"
All that matters is nothing happened. Not for the Yankees, anyway. Stewart and the Angels' Anderson both made the kind of plays the Yankees used to make. Worse, the Yankees again looked like a team that can't summon its best baseball against baseball's best teams. And that's another trend that didn't just start yesterday. It's haunted them all year.
This Yankees club doesn't use the big occasion to lift itself to some higher plateau of play. If anything, as Torre, Jeter, Jorge Posada and Jason Giambi all said yesterday, these Yankees struggled with the pressure of the postseason opener.
"You realize it's a five-game season, and maybe you go out there and try a little too hard," Torre said. "I sense the guys were pumped to start the game. Maybe too pumped. But again, that's something you have to deal with."
And the Twins? "Hey," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire kept saying, "this is fun."
The fact that the Yankees once again found themselves pining for a home run to bail them out, rather than building a win brick by brick, a play at a time, was telling, too. "You can't get caught up in hoping to hit a home run," Jeter said. "You can't rely on that. You've got to be able to move guys along, then get them in."
Can this Yankees team do that? "Yeah," Jeter said. "If we come out here in Game 2 and come up with those hits, people will say we've got it back."
Unless they win a few playoff series, not just a game or two, these Yankees are going to be derided as a 101-win team that didn't play up to its record-breaking $180-million payroll, and fattened up on the Tampa Bays and Baltimores of the league. And the Twins' Stewart will find no one who can honestly challenge what he said when asked if the Twins' style reminds him of how the Yankees' championship teams used to play.
"I think we won the way the Twins play," Stewart said. "We play defense. We get timely hits. In these playoff series games, we know everything counts. You have to be sharp as you can on the little things ... You have to take every opportunity you can."
Sound familiar? It should.
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