- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

NEW YORK — Five games.

Five games can turn champs into chumps, rich into poor, men into mice.

Five games can strike fear in the hearts of the players on the most powerful sports franchise in America — and put hope in the hearts of players on a franchise deemed so useless it was ticketed for extinction.

A five-game series can put the Minnesota Twins — a team that had lost 13 straight games to the New York Yankees over the past two seasons — in control just by winning one game, as they did yesterday when they beat the Bronx Bombers 3-1 in Game 1 of the American League Division Series before 56,292 stunned spectators at Yankee Stadium.

“The pressure is always on in a short series,” said former Orioles ace Mike Mussina, yesterday’s losing pitcher (his third career loss to the Twins against 20 victories) by record only and not through any fault of his own.

The shorter the series, the greater the pressure. The Game 1 winner doesn’t always win the division series, but it is the goal of any visiting team to split on the road, and the Twins already have done at least that.

Now the Yankees have to win three of the next four games, with two of them taking place back in Minneapolis inside the Metrodome — a place that actually may be louder than Yankee Stadium’s eardrum-piercing sound system (Eddie Layton, please don’t retire) and a ball park conducive to the Twins’ style of small ball. Over the years, the Twins have gone 13-3 at home in postseason play.

“They have good speed up and down the lineup,” Mussina said. “They like to make things happen, hit and run and move people over. When you get a ball in the gap or down the line and you are hitting and running, they can really push it. They’re built for their park.”

The Yankees played like they were built for a Little League park in a sixth-inning breakdown yesterday that cost them the game. With the Twins leading 1-0, Matt LeCroy opened the inning with a single down the left-field line before Mussina struck out Jacque Jones. Then Torii Hunter hit a ball to center that should have been a single but was misplayed by Bernie Williams into a triple, allowing LeCroy to score. On the same play, Alfonso Soriano took the cutoff and overthrew third base, which allowed Hunter to score and gave a 3-0 lead to the Twins’ bullpen, forced into five innings of work when starter Johan Santana had to leave the game after four innings with cramps in his leg.

As this was unfolding, I think I spotted Mussina looking down at his uniform, wondering if it still said “Orioles” on it.

“The game gets sloppy, and the ball gets thrown around a little bit. That makes it tough to win,” Mussina said. “But postseason is about minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of the other team’s mistakes. That’s what they did today. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to.”

Not even their fans did. When Williams led off the ninth for the Yankees with a single to right, Hideki Matsui came to the plate and lofted a long fly ball to left field that went all the way to the wall. As Shannon Stewart jumped up to snare the ball, a fan with a glove reached over and came within inches of Stewart’s glove. Turns out he was no Jeffrey Maier; Stewart came down with the ball.

“I didn’t even see him,” Stewart said. “I could barely see the ball. With the sun, it was hard picking it up.”

If the Yankees don’t pick it up, the sun will be setting on the Joe Torre era. A series loss at the hands of the Twins — a team designated for contraction two years ago — likely would lead to an ugly confrontation with Boss Steinbrenner and Torre’s exit. There was more tension between the owner and the manager publicly this year — after the Yankees were eliminated in the division series last year by another low budget, small ball team, the Anaheim Angels — than at any other time since Torre, who had led the Yankees to four World Series titles, was hired in 1996.

There is almost a sense of desperation surrounding this franchise, as if the Yankees know time is running out on their championship run.

“You get into the postseason, and you realize it’s a five-game season,” Torre said. “Maybe you go out there and try a little too hard. But when is trying too hard worse than not trying at all? I sensed the guys were pumped to start the game — maybe too pumped, but that’s something that you have to deal with.”

It’s not a five-game season anymore for the Yankees. Now it’s a four-game season. Deal with that.


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