MINNEAPOLIS | Sure, the New York Yankees stumbled through September as Andy Pettitte tried to work his way back from a groin injury.
After landing in the AL wild-card spot, the defending World Series champs look as though they had the Minnesota Twins right where they wanted ‘em.
Pettitte turned in a vintage performance with seven smooth innings and Lance Berkman had two big hits in a 5-2 victory by the Yankees over their favorite postseason punching bag on Thursday evening for a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five division series.
So much for Minnesota’s home-field advantage. The Yankees are hardly an underdog when it comes to October.
“Andy, when he gets in big situations, he knows how to handle it,” New York manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s not going to try to make the perfect pitch. He’s going to stay aggressive and just try to do what he does. And I think a lot of that is just from experience.”
Berkman hit a go-ahead home run in the fifth and a tiebreaking double in the seventh against Carl Pavano, sending the Twins to their 11th straight postseason loss. Eight of those have come against the Yankees, who trailed in each of those games.
From the point of the Twins’ biggest lead in those games, the Yankees have outscored them 42-8.
Mariano Rivera got three outs for his second save of the series, extending his postseason record to 41. The road team has won all four games in the two AL playoff series.
The Twins? They haven’t won a postseason game since 2004, matching the Philadelphia Phillies (1915-1976) for the second-longest streak in history behind the Boston Red Sox (1986-1995) and their 13 in a row.
Berkman, yet another big-name veteran finding a place on a Yankees postseason roster, even on the downside of his career, made it 2-1 with his drive into the left-center bullpen in the fifth. His double in the seventh — one pitch after it appeared Pavano sneaked strike three past him — drove in Jorge Posada and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead.
“That’s why I wanted to come over here, just to get a chance to play in these games,” Berkman said.
The disputed call by plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt led to the ejection of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire following Berkman’s double, and Pavano soon exited before getting another out. He allowed 10 hits and four runs.
Many fans proudly wore their pregame giveaways — fuzzy black stick-on replica mustaches in honor of Pavano’s appearance. He started strong, but the Yankees were sure on the ball in the fourth — and they really got to him in the seventh.
Derek Jeter chased his old teammate off the mound with a half-swing RBI single to make it 4-2. Curtis Granderson scored New York’s first run and came up with three more hits. And the Yankees headed back home for Game 3 on Saturday night with a commanding lead over the team they own in October.
“We’ve got a big hill to climb. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve seen it done before, and this club is never going to quit.”
Pettitte retired 12 in a row until Orlando Hudson’s homer tied it at 2 in the sixth. He needed only 88 pitches to finish seven innings, with five hits and two runs allowed. He walked one and struck out four, deftly escaping a couple of tricky spots.
“I just think the biggest part of it is being able to control your emotions,” Pettitte said, pointing to his “tunnel vision” in critical situations. “Nothing’s going to faze you. Nothing’s going to make you nervous.”
The old man, as Hudson respectfully referred to him the night before, broke a bunch of bats and was able to escape a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the second by allowing Danny Valencia’s only sacrifice fly.
Pettitte spoke the day before about how, while he doesn’t change his approach, these October appearances simply feel different to him. As one of the Yankees’ famed Core Four, he sure would know. This was his 41st career postseason start and 19th win — both major league records.
Pettitte strained his left groin muscle and missed two months until returning for three starts at the end of the regular season. His absence compounded concerns about the rotation, but after winning a so-so start by CC Sabathia in Game 1 and getting this vintage effort from Pettitte the Yankees don’t look as though they’ll be affected by any pitching problems.
“I think all he had to do was get to October,” Granderson said.
Before the game, Gardenhire acknowledged this was a “do-or-die” game for his team, which fell to 2-11 against the Yankees in four division series since 2003. The look changed — the Twins wore their 1961 throwback uniforms — but the plot didn’t.
They’ve now sent their fans home disappointed from a postseason game 10 straight times. Their last win was Game 1 of the AL championship series in 2002.
Though early-inning 1-0 deficits are hardly a hurdle, the Yankees have made rallying a routine. The Twins can’t break their bad habit: They don’t have a comeback victory in any of their last 22 postseason games, dating to Game 4 of the 2002 ALDS.
Even Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” — the ballad played often here after the seventh inning — didn’t generate much of a buzz. The crowd of 42,035 even emitted some boos after Berkman’s homer, another sign of how easily deflated these fans have become while watching their Twins lose game after game after game to the modern-day Bronx Bombers.
“We’ve got to stay within ourselves and play good baseball,” right fielder Jason Kubel said. “Someday it will turn out. Just hopefully sooner rather than later.”
NOTES: The Yankees have never lost a postseason game in Minnesota, improving to 7-0. … In their 13 meetings in the playoffs since 2003, the Yankees have homered 16 times against the Twins. Fourteen of those have come in the last eight meetings. … Of the 16 teams before this year to lose the first two games of the division series at home, the only one to sweep the next three and advance was the 2001 Yankees against Oakland, according to STATS LLC.
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