- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS — For Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees, Minnesota proved to be little more than a speed bump, barely slowing them down on their race to meet the Red Sox.

A big home run by Ruben Sierra, a timely 11th-inning hit by Rodriguez and the Yankees beat the Twins 6-5 last night to win the first-round playoff series in four games — and a date with Boston for the American League pennant.

“This is what everybody drew up in spring training and now everybody gets to see what it’s all about,” Yankees star Gary Sheffield said. “When Schilling went to the Red Sox and when A-Rod came here, that’s what everybody wanted to see.”

The AL championship series opens Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, with Curt Schilling likely to start for the Red Sox against Mike Mussina.

Sierra’s three-run homer in the eighth inning tied it, then Rodriguez doubled, alertly stole third base and scored in the 11th on Kyle Lohse’s wild pitch.

Rodriguez hit .421 in the series, best among the Yankees, with three doubles and a home run.

“What makes you a complete player and a winning player is being asked to the little things,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t play big ball all the time.”

Minnesota led 5-1 behind ace Johan Santana before another New York rally. The Yankees came from behind for all three wins in this series after setting a major league record with 61 comeback victories during the regular season. Nine of those were from deficits of four runs or more.

“I’ve never been around so many guys that believe in themselves,” Rodriguez said. “We have so many guys with big, big hearts.”

Said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire: “They find a way. They’ve just got so many great hitters.”

For the second straight year, New York lost the first-round opener to Minnesota, then won three straight and advanced to the AL championship series.

The Yankees won that matchup with Red Sox last October on Aaron Boone’s homer in the 11th inning of Game 7, then lost 4-2 to Florida in the World Series.

Boston spent the offseason competing with the Yankees for Rodriguez and others, then went 11-8 against the Yankees this year, finishing three games back in the AL East but winning the wild card. The Red Sox then swept Anaheim in the first round.

Winning pitcher Mariano Rivera, who blew a rare postseason save chance in the eighth inning of Game 2, retired six straight batters to finish a stifling performance by the Yankees bullpen. After Javier Vazquez allowed five runs in five innings, Esteban Loaiza and Tom Gordon each threw two scoreless innings.

Lohse pitched a perfect 10th and started the 11th by handing Derek Jeter his fourth strikeout of the afternoon, but Rodriguez laced his second double of the game down the left-field line and stole third base on unsuspecting catcher Pat Borders — who didn’t throw.

Then Lohse bounced a pitch to Sheffield that skipped past Borders, allowing Rodriguez to race home with the winning run.

That wild pitch silenced the Metrodome, where fans thought their team would do better this year against the Yankees, who won their seventh straight AL East title. The Twins were on the verge of a 2-0 series lead Wednesday night when closer Joe Nathan failed to hold a one-run lead in the 12th inning.

“Even with a 5-1 lead I wasn’t comfortable,” Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. “I know with the talent they have over there, anything can happen. And it did.”

The Twins, who won the AL Central for the third consecutive year, missed several chances to score in this game and head into another offseason unsure how many players they’ll be able to afford next year.

“We gave them a scare over there,” said third baseman Corey Koskie, who will be a free agent. “I thought this was the year that we could beat them.”

Light-hitting Henry Blanco’s leadoff homer and Lew Ford’s two-out, two-run double broke it open against Vazquez in the fifth, giving the Twins a four-run cushion.

Santana was in the same situation last year, needing a strong performance to keep the Twins’ season going. He gave up six runs and failed to survive the fourth inning.

Throwing on three days’ rest for the first time in his major league career, Santana — who put at least one runner on in each of seven shutout innings against New York in Game 1 — clearly wasn’t strong.

Seventeen of his first 34 pitches were balls, and the Yankees smartly and patiently worked the count deep against the 25-year-old left-hander.

But Santana, who went 13-0 in his final 15 regular-season starts and led the league in strikeouts and ERA, did just what he was asked to do: He left with the lead and let the bullpen do the rest.

“We battled our tails off,” Gardenhire said.

Grant Balfour pitched two perfect innings, and Sierra’s homer was New York’s first extra-base hit. But the first three Yankees reached against Juan Rincon in the eighth, with Bernie Williams driving in Gary Sheffield with a single to make it 5-2.

One out later, Sierra crushed a 2-2 pitch into the folded-up seats in right-center field as Jeter and Rodriguez jumped up off the bench in celebration. After John Olerud’s double, Joe Nathan replaced Rincon — who slammed his cap in disgust upon reaching the dugout.

“I had a feeling something was going to happen, but I didn’t think I would do what I did,” Sierra said. “I never think, ‘Home run.’ I just know if I hit it good, it’s gone.”

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