Yankees fans, spoiled by 27 World Series trophies, might be frustrated by their team’s decade-long drought without adding another title. But consider the plight of Minnesota Twins fans when they learned of their team’s first-round postseason opponent.
The Twins, who last won a World Series in 1991, have been eliminated in five of their six previous recent playoff appearances — in 2003, ’04, ’09, ’10 and ’17 — by the Yankees. In 15 postseason games between the two teams before this year, the Twins had won only twice — the first games of the American League division series in 2003 and 2004.
Although most current players have been part of only a sliver of that history, at most, the Yankees and their star infielder D.J. LeMahieu added to the Twins’ postseason torment with a 10-4 victory in the opening game of their best-of-five division series at Yankee Stadium on Friday.
“The first one is always the biggest game,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said.
In a matchup between the two best home-run hitting teams in major-league history, offense was as plentiful as expected — but only on one side. The Twins sent three balls over the fence, but made several costly mistakes. The Yankees took advantage, and benefited from key hits from two All-Star infielders: Gleyber Torres, who drove in two runs, and LeMahieu, who drove in four. Brett Gardner and LeMahieu also each homered.
Interspersed between the blasts and runs, the dawdling game, which lasted 4 hours 15 minutes, featured 11 total relievers as both managers tried to navigate through the other’s potent lineup.
This year’s Twins squad is much different than those from previous playoff teams, especially the 2017 group that lost, 8-4, to the Yankees in the A.L. wild-card game. The 2019 team — known as the Bomba Squad for their home-run hitting — won 101 games and the A.L. Central in the regular season, and set a major-league record with 307 home runs, edging the Yankees’ total by one.
The only players from either team with experience from the 2009 and 2010 postseason series are Gardner and pitcher C.C. Sabathia, who was left off the Yankees’ 2019 A.L.D.S. roster because of a sore shoulder.
“I know that Twins fans have a lot of memories, but we don’t,” Twins reliever Taylor Rogers said on Thursday.
The Twins got off to a hopeful start on Friday. Solo home runs by shortstop Jorge Polanco and designated hitter Nelson Cruz off James Paxton, the Yankees’ pitcher making his first career postseason start, gave the Twins a 2-0 lead by the third inning.
But the Yankees quickly erased that deficit in the bottom of the third when designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, playing for the first time since Sept. 12 because of an oblique injury, smacked a run-scoring double to left field with Judge and LeMahieu on base. The Yankees then took a 3-2 lead when the Twins’ C.J. Cron couldn’t field a throw at first base on a double play attempt, allowing Encarnacion to score.
After the Twins tied the score at 3-3 in the fifth inning with hits to left field that Giancarlo Stanton couldn’t reach, the Yankees began to pick away at the Twins’ pitching staff. Torres fell behind Tyler Duffey in the bottom of the fifth yet fought back to smack a two-run double that gave the Yankees the lead for good.
“We had a lot of opportunities to score with a lot of guys on base,” LeMahieu said. “We did a really good job against their pitchers. I feel like every one of their pitchers that came in pretty much had tough innings against us, hard-fought innings.”
After Miguel Sano homered off Tommy Kahnle to narrow the Twins’ deficit to 5-4 in the sixth inning, the Yankees piled on the runs. LeMahieu and Gardner hit solo homers off Cody Stashak in the bottom half of the frame. Then LeMahieu cleared the bases with double in the seventh that gave the Yankees a six-run lead.
As expected, Manager Aaron Boone steered the Yankees through Friday’s game much differently than he would a typical regular season game. He hooked Paxton after he had faced the first two hitters in the Twins’ lineup a third time. He removed reliever Adam Ottavino after he walked the only batter he faced. He used the setup man Zack Britton in the seventh inning against the top of the Twins’ lineup. And with a large lead, he chose to use J.A. Happ, a starting pitcher moved to the bullpen for the playoffs, in the eighth before Aroldis Chapman finished the game in the ninth.
Still, the formula produced a familiar result: a Yankees postseason victory at the Twins’ expense.
Here are the highlights from the Yankees’ win, as it happened:
Bottom of the 8th: All Up to Chapman Now
Brusdar Graterol (love saying that name) set down the Yankees in order in the bottom of the eighth, so now it’s up to Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, who is into the game to get some work. Needless to say, this is about as far as you can get from a save opportunity.
Bottom of the 7th: LeMahieu Piles On More Runs
D.J. LeMahieu hit a bases-clearing double to add to the Yankees lead. He is having a fairly productive night with a homer, a double, four runs batted in and two runs scored. With the Yankees enjoying a healthy 10-4 lead and only six outs to go, it might be a good time to consider that, if they do hold on, they will have won their 11th consecutive postseason game against Minnesota to go 14-2 over all.
Of course, there was a time when the Red Sox could never beat the Yankees when it counted most, and that changed. But Minnesota looks a very long way from replicating that.
Bottom of the 6th: LeMahieu and Gardner Respond
Before tonight, D.J. LeMahieu had played in five playoff games, but he just pounded his first postseason home run into the Twins bullpen in left-center off Minnesota right-hander Cody Stashak. It was a blast. That was the third time in the game that the Yankees came back to score in the bottom of an inning after the Twins had scored in the top half, and that can be particularly deflating for a club. It’s even more deflating when the pitcher gives up another homer, as Stashak did when Gardner crushed one into the second deck in right field. Guess Gardy’s arm doesn’t hurt, or if it does, a 7-4 lead will help soothe it.
Top of the 6th: Another Homer for the Twins
Adam Sandler was shown on the big screen, and he got almost as big a cheer as Judge did at the beginning of the game. Then the Twins cut into the Yankees lead when Sano homered off Kahnle, drilling a line drive to right field. The ball barely made it over the wall in the shortest part of the ballpark (in fact, just about the shortest part of any ballpark) and Sano had to wait as he rounded first base to make sure that Judge didn’t come down with the ball after the right fielder jumped for it. It’s a one-run game and the Twins have three more chances to tie it.
Bottom of the 5th: Torres With a Clutch Hit
The Yankees recaptured the lead by scoring two runs on a bases-loaded double by Gleyber Torres after getting into the Minnesota bullpen. Zack Littell replaced Berrios, and was not exactly effective. After Judge missed a mammoth home run by inches, soaring just to the left of the foul pole in left field, Little walked Judge and then hit Gardner in the right biceps with a 96 mile-per-hour fastball (it hit the fleshy part of his arm, but on a chilly night it had to sting).
That was all Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli needed to see, and he pulled Littell for Tyler Duffy, who struck out Encarnacion on a breaking ball, but walked Stanton to load the bases. Then Torres ripped a double down the third base line, off the glove off Sano and into foul territory in left. Judge and Gardner scored, then turned to Torres at second base to salute him.
Duffy stranded the two remaining runners by striking out Sanchez and Gregorius, but the damage had been done.
Top of the 5th: Paxton’s Night Is Done
The Yankees lost their lead when a little gamble failed to yield results. With two outs, Polanco singled in Arraez after a 9-pitch battle with Paxton. Polanco had homered off Paxton in the first inning, and the Yankees’ starter had already thrown 77 pitches by the time Polanco came back to the plate.
The Yankees’ plan may have been to have the switch-hitting Polanco bat right-handed against the lefty Paxton, and then, if necessary, bring in the right-handed Ottavino to face Cruz, which they eventually did.
But Polanco fouled off a series of breaking pitches before lining a knuckle curve into left-center field, scoring Arraez. After Ottavino walked Cruz, Tommy Kahnle came on and got Rosario to line out to Gardner in center.
Paxton’s night ends after four and two-thirds innings. He gave up three runs and five hits and struck out eight.
Bottom of the 3rd: Encarnacion Fuels Yankees Rally
The Yankees took the lead with three runs in the inning, Yankee Stadium has come to life. Edwin Encarnacion is playing in his first game since Sept. 12, but there is no rust. He roped another double to left to score LeMahieu, and is now 2 for 2 with a pair of doubles. Encarnacion, with his power, bat wiggle and laser focus, is an intimidating force at the plate in the postseason, similar to the way Gary Sheffield was, and he is a proven postseason slugger. He now has 15 R.B.I. in 27 postseason games.
The Yankees were able to draw even after the Twins could not convert a double play: Cron could not corral a low relay throw from Arraez, allowing two runs to score. The Twins had Zack Littell warming up in the pen during the long inning, but Berrios escaped more trouble by striking out Sanchez, then walked off the mound yelling into his glove.
Top of the 3rd: Cruz Homer Makes It 2-0
The Bomba Squad is at it again. Nelson Cruz slammed a home run to right field to add to the Twins’ lead. The Twins, like many teams, come into Yankee Stadium and shoot for that shallow right-field fence (it went right over the 314-foot sign). They even work on it in batting practice.
For Cruz, it was his 17th postseason home run. What a slugger; he’s had his ups and downs in the postseason, as Tyler Kepner of the Times detailed in this story. Good thing for the Yankees that Judge made a nice catch earlier in the inning, or the home run could have been more damaging. Judge showed his athleticism (and long glove) by running in and making a diving catch on Polanco’s bloop into shallow right.
Bottom of the 1st: Replay Review Denies Tying Run
Remember how the Yankees’ postseason ended last year, with an agonizingly close play at first base (you may recall Steve Pearce’s crazy stretch). Well, in a similar play, Giancarlo Stanton was thrown out at first for the final out of the inning after a great bare-handed pickup and throw by Twins third baseman Miguel Sano. Stanton, who hit a weak ground ball, was originally ruled safe, which would have scored the run from third base in Aaron Judge. But after a review, it was shown that the throw beat Stanton by a hair and Berrios got out of the inning unscathed, despite giving up a walk to Judge and a double to Edwin Encarnacion, who seems to be healthy. Encarnacion ripped a shot into the left field corner. This game seems tense already.
Top of the 1st: Jorge Polanco Leads Off With Homer
Polanco silenced the Yankee Stadium crowd with bases-empty home run to left field. What else would you expect from the two teams who hit the most home runs this year. Polanco slugged a 98 mile-per-hour fastball, down and in from lefty James Paxton, several rows into the seats. It was Polanco’s first home run in 24 at-bats at Yankee Stadium. Paxton also walked Nelson Cruz, but he struck out Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano to end the inning, and give Yankee fans a chance to cheer. Now it’s the Yankees turn to show some power against Jose Berrios. No one expects this game to remain at 1-0.