Hughes pitches Yanks to ALCS with win over Twins

It must feel like a recurring nightmare for Ron Gardenhire and the Twins at this point. They won 94 games and steamrolled the rest of the AL Central this season, then headed into the playoffs with homefield advantage and their best team in years. Three games and four nights later, they were again swept by the Yankees in the ALDS, and just one of the games was really competitive. Phil Hughes did the honors on Saturday, putting up zero after zero while the lineup scored run after run. Minnesota’s season is over, but the Yanks are just getting started.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Biggest Hit: Happy Thames Are Here Again

For the first time since the 2003 ALDS, the Yanks scored first in a playoff game against the Twins. It’s a stretch that lasted nine games, but that all came to an end in the second inning when Jorge Posada singled in Robbie Cano following his leadoff triple. Two innings later the Yanks were up two-zip, and nice lead but certainly nothing that makes you rest easy that early in the game. Might mighty Marcus Thames changed all that with one swing.

(AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Minnesota starter Brian Duensing was fooling no one in this game, something that’s not uncommon for pitch-to-contact guys against the Yankee lineup. He threw 58 total pitches and didn’t get one swing-and-miss, and the beginning of the end all started when Cano reached first on a weak ground ball about 20-feet from first. Michael Cuddyer fielded the ball and tossed it over to Duensing at first, but the ball glanced off his glove and hit first base coach Mick Kelleher in … a vulnerable spot. I sure hope he iced down afterwards, and I’ll leave it at that.

As we chuckled at the replay of Kelleher getting hit, Thames wasted no time extending his team’s lead. Duensing left 91 mph sinker out over the plate and the designated hitter put his best swing on it, hitting a big fly into the rightfield people to give the Yanks a four run cushion. The Twins starter was out of the game two batters and one baserunner later, but this one was long gone by that point. Thames’ shot was for all intents and purposes the nail in the coffin. At .102 WPA, it was the biggest play of the game.

Honorable Mention: You’re On The Mark, Teixeira


(AP Photo/ Bill Kostroun)

Everyone knew that a lone second inning run wasn’t going to stand up for seven innings, and two players who contributed surprisingly little the Yankees’ 2009 World Title run put another run on the board in the third.

Nick Swisher, who hit just .128/.255/.234 in last year’s playoffs, got the party started by lacing a double into the left-centerfield gap with two outs in the third. Mark Teixeira, who was slightly better than Swish last year at .180/.282/.311, absolutely annihilated a 1-0 fastball from Duensing, hitting it clear over Delmon Young’s head in left to score Swish. He hit it so hard that he was held to the single, but that was irrelevant. The run was in, and the lead grew.

Biggest Out: O-Dawg Kills The Rally Before It Even Starts

We’ll expand on this in a bit, but Hughes cruised right into the fourth inning without allowing a single baserunner. Denard Span changed that with a leadoff single to right, and with a two run lead all it would take was one swing of the bat to tie things up. Minnesota had the meat of their order coming up, so the situation could have gotten very dicey very quickly.

Instead of letting a bad situation snowball into a disaster, Hughes remained nice and calm and quelled the threat with one pitch. That pitch was a 93 mph heater on the outside corner to Orlando Hudson, who grounded it right to Derek Jeter for a rally killing 6-4-3 double play. It was that simple. Oh, you guys are threatening? No, let’s put an end to that. The double play improved the Yankees chances of winning by 9.0%, the second biggest play of the game.

Honorable Mention: Hughes Gives Kubel The Gas


(AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

This one’s completely subjective, but that’s okay, we’re allowed to do that from time to time. After Thames and a few other guys helped push the lead to five-nil, the Yanks were simply looking to get outs as quickly as possible.The Twins started to mount a little two out rally in the sixth inning, when Hudson and Joe Mauer both singled to right. Phil’s pitch count was starting to climb, but he wasted no time putting Jason Kubel away. First pitch curveball dropped in for a strike, second pitch fastball was fouled off for strike two, and the kill pitch was a 93 mph heater up in the zone that garnered a swing-and-a-miss and the third out. That could have been the end of Hughes’ outing right there, but he was again able to bear down and escape the inning.

The Night He Became A Man

There’s something extra satisfying about watching a guy perform well on the big stage after you’ve followed basically his entire career. Phil Hughes is pretty much that first guy for a large contingent of Yankee fans, since he was drafted just as blogs and fan analysis brought prospects and minor league baseball to the forefront. We watched as Hughes made his rookie ball debut, as he tore through two levels of A-ball in one season, as the dominated guys two and three years older then him in Double-A. It was glorious.

(AP Photo/ Bill Kostroun)

But we also dealt with the struggles, the injuries, and the failure to provide instant gratification. It wasn’t until two full years after his big league debut that he established himself as a Major Leaguer, and that didn’t happen until he moved to the bullpen. Hughes won a World Series ring last year, but his career progression didn’t end there. Not even close. He stepped back into the rotation this year, and delivered a masterpiece in the biggest start of his life.

Thirteen days after his last start, Phil took the mound in this game and was throwing grenades right from the start. The first nine batters were set down on just 31 pitches, and the lone baserunner he allowed in the fourth was erased on Hudson’s double play. He didn’t run into any real trouble until the fifth, which came after he sat on the bench for over half-an-hour while the lineup tacked some runs on the board. Hughes threw over 30 pitches that inning and nearly coughed up part of the lead, but he rebounded and gave his two more innings.

The end result was seven innings pitched, four singles, just one walk, and six strikeouts. He threw 99 pitches and 67 strikes, recording a game score of 74, his second highest of the season behind the near no-hitter in Oakland (that was an 80). The stakes were a bit higher this time out, so I’m going to make an executive decision to dub this his best game of the season. In fact, he became the first Yankee pitcher to go seven scoreless in a playoff game since Mike Mussina way back in Game Three of the 2001 ALDS. Yeah, it had been a while.

Phil Hughes grew up a little bit in this game. Well, he continued growing up I mean. He’s been doing it all season, but this was the biggest step forward we’ve seen. He was dominant and efficient, calm yet overwhelming, and quite frankly, he was an ace. After all we’ve gone through with Phil over the last six years, this was something special.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In hindsight, maybe using Kerry Wood three times in four days wasn’t such a good idea. However, both Boone Logan and David Robertson earned their pay checks tonight. They threw three pitches combined and recorded two harmless pop outs with the bases loaded in the eighth. Mariano Rivera was exceptionally sharp in the ninth, closing it out flawlessly. He retired nine of the 11 men he faced in the series, with one of the baserunners being erased on a double play and the other coming on a blown call (the Greg Golson shoestring catch). Mo’s back to being Mo, and not a second too soon.

Swish hit a solo homer late to give him three extra base hits in the series, the same number he had in the entire postseason last year. He hit .333/.385/.750 in the three games, but wasn’t nearly as good as Curtis Granderson, who hit .455/.500/.727 in the series. He singled and walked in this one, then stole a base and moved to third on the same play as the result of a throwing error, setting up their third run in the fifth inning. Derek Jeter had two hits, Cano had two hits, and Thames had two hits. The only Yankee that didn’t reach base in this game was Brett Gardner, but we’ll forgive him.

As for the Twins, they went just 2-for-18 (.111) with runners in scoring position during the series, the Yankees 9-for-25 (.360). Remember when everyone was worrying about that last month? Anyway, it’s also worth mentioning that the Yanks held Mauer and Jim Thome to .250/.308/.250 and .100/.308/.100, respectively. Kubel, a career .291/.354/.456 hitter against New York, was held to three walks and zero hits in 11 plate appearances during the series. Minnesota’s three big lefty bats mustered zero extra base hits. Shut right down.

Part of me feels bad for Gardenhire and the Twins, they have to be so mentally defeated by the utter lack of success against the Yankees for the last half-decade. They’re a great organization that consistently puts a winner out there year-after-year, but their shtick doesn’t work in the playoffs. Develop some pitchers that can miss bats, and maybe you’ll stand a chance next time.

Final note: The Yankees are now 8-1 in playoff games at the New Stadium. The only loss was to Cliff Lee in Game One of the 2009 World Series.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Love it, nice and easy. MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs some other sweet stuff.

Up Next

Woooo six days off! The Yanks will play either the Rangers or the Rays in the ALCS when that series starts on Friday in either Texas or Tampa. For now they’ll just get some rest, throw some bullpens, take a bunch of batting practice, and ready themselves for the next step. This ALDS sweep was only the start of something big.

Yanks sweep Twins to advance to ALCS

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Ballgame over, American League Division Series over, Yankees win. Thaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!

Post game is on YES, folks. Enjoy that and we’ll have our usual analysis up in a little while.

ALDS Game Three: Twins @ Yankees

For the first time since walking off the field as World Champions last November, the Yankees will play a playoff game in the Bronx tonight. They grabbed the first two games of the best-of-five ALDS in Minnesota in entirely different fashions, using their offensive might to out-slug the Twins in Game One before riding their pitching depth in Game Two. Should they win tonight, they’ll celebrate on home turf once again, though it’ll just be the first of what we hope are several celebrations this month. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

On the bump for the good guys is the young Phil Hughes, who made it through his first full season as a starter in the AL East with flying colors. Sure, there were absolutely some bumps in the road, but the end result was a 2.4 fWAR season at age-24. Hard to complain about that. Hughes has had some a lot of trouble keeping the ball in the park at home this year (20 HR allowed in 106.1 IP), so he’s going to have to keep the ball down in the zone and away from the middle of the plate to keep Minny’s lefty power in check. With the bullpen fresh after an off day and Andy Pettitte‘s stellar Game Two effort, all Phil needs to do is give them five strong. Anything beyond that is gravy.

The Twins are handing the keys to their season over to 27-year-old Brian Duensing. He’s the kind of lefty that can give the Yankees fits; he’s got a good changeup (0.98 runs above average for every 100 thrown this year) and he pounds the zone (2.07 BB/9 if you take out intentional walks), but at the same time he won’t miss any bats (just 5.37 K/9 with a below average 7.7% swinging strike rate). Duensing’s going to give the Yanks the opportunity to put the ball in play, and I’ll happily take my chances with that. For what it’s worth, the Yanks tagged him for seven hits and five runs in just 4.2 innings in Game One of last year’s ALDS.

Make sure you check out Joe’s preview over at FanGraphs, ditto Jack Moore’s for the Twins. Here’s the lineups…

Yankees
1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Nick Swisher, RF
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robbie Cano, 2B
6. Marcus Thames, DH
7. Jorge Posada, C
8. Curtis Granderson, CF
9. Brett Gardner, LF

Phil Hughes (18-8, 4.19 ERA)

Twins
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Jason Kubel, RF
5. Delmon Young, LF
6. Jim Thome, DH
7. Michael Cuddyer, 1B
8. Danny Valencia, 3B
9. J.J. Hardy, SS

Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 ERA)

First pitch is scheduled for 8:37pm ET, and the game will be on TBS. Once again, Ernie Johnson, John Smoltz, and Ron Darling will have the call. Enjoy.

A subway ride back in time for the ALDS

As is becoming playoff subway tradition, New York City Transit announced today that they’ll be running a Nostalgia Train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium this evening. For ALDS-bound straphangers, the old-school four-car special departs 42nd St. at around 7:15 p.m. and should get to Yankee Stadium at around 7:45 p.m. I have more info about the ride on Second Ave. Sagas.

ALDS Game Thread: Rays @ Rangers

Matt Garza gets the ball with Tampa’s season on the line, and maybe his lineup will actually muster some offense against righty Colby Lewis. As Yankee fans, we’ve gotta pull for the Rays here. The longer this series goes, the better. TBS will carry this one starting at 5:07pm ET.

Matching up the Yankees pitching and Twins hitters, Game 3

(Kathy Willens/AP)

As mentioned in the first two installments of the series, the Twins’ lineup has two different looks. One puts Delmon Young in the cleanup spot. That’s against lefties, which the Twins saw in the first two games. The other moves Kubel into the more prominent spot. That’s the case tonight, as the Yankees throw righty Phil Hughes against the Twins.

Both the lefty Denard Span and the switch-hitting Orlando Hudson will remain at the top of the lineup. Span actually has a reverse split for his career and the 2010 season. Against righties this season he managed just a .322 OBP and .301 wOBA. His strikeout rate is low at 10.6 percent, so Hughes will probably use the cutter to help prevent solid contact. Hudson hits righties a bit better than lefties, but he hasn’t hit well at all away from Target Field. He and Span give the Twins a largely powerless top of the order.

While Joe Mauer’s season might not have lived up to the standard he set in 2009, he still approaches those numbers when facing right-handed pitching. Against them he has a .416 wOBA, including a .171 ISO. He has also hit for more power away from Target field, a .185 ISO. It was a key in the first two games, but an even bigger key in this one will be keeping Hudson and Span off base. Mauer can do some serious damage, and that’s sometimes unavoidable.

(Jack Rendulich/AP)

The Twins’ major weapon against righties this season has been Country Strong Jim Thome, who has an unbelievable .477 wOBA in 246 PA when facing opposite-handed pitchers. I figured he’d bat behind Mauer, but it appears as though Ron Gardenhire favors Jason Kubel in these situations. I’m not sure why, though. While Kubel has been much better against righties (.341 wOBA) than lefties (.297 wOBA) this season, he’s simply not as good as Thome. In either case, the Twins will have three viable left-handed hitters in the 3, 4, and probably 6 spots. Chances are Gardenhire won’t string together his three best lefty bats, as to prevent a Boone Logan attack.

While the Twins will have a few lefty weapons, they’ll also have mostly ineffective right-handed hitters towards the bottom of the order. Figure on Young batting fifth to break up the lefties. He’s not horrible against same-handed pitching, a .338 wOBA, but he’s not nearly as effective. He can still cause problems with his power, which is a weak point for Hughes, so he won’t be a non-factor by any means. Cuddyer, however, might be. His .308 wOBA against righties and .318 wOBA away from Target Field give him basically the opposite split as Mauer.

At the bottom of the order the Twins feature two more righties. Danny Valencia killed lefties in his rookie campaign, but struggled against righties. He did have a bit of pop, but managed to hit just .280 with a .303 OBP. I can see Hughes blowing some fastballs by him. Hardy actually has a reverse split this season and has hit righties far better than lefties. Then again, we’re dealing with small samples, since Hardy missed much of the season. In his career he has a .313 OBP and .312 wOBA against righties, though as with Valencia he has a little pop.

Given the breakdown of this lineup, I think it’s critical for Hughes to work his changeup tonight. He might be able to get by with his two fastballs and the curveball against the lesser hitters, but against Mauer, Kubel, and Thome in particular he’s probably going to need the changeup. He’s had problems with giving up homers at home and to lefties, so the situation in general doesn’t bode well for him. Changing things up, even if it means using a pitch with which he’s not completely comfortable, might be the best plan of attack. He continues to feed those Twins lefties fastballs I fear they might put more than a couple over the fence.

Ride ‘em while you’ve got ‘em

Lance and Kerry in their younger and more vulnerable days. (AP File Photo)

The New York Yankees playoff roster reads as one from a mid-2000s All Star Game would. Somehow, some way, both Kerry Wood and Lance Berkman landed on the 2010 New York Yankees, and while those two players aren’t nearly as good as they once were, they’ve each made their impacts felt during the first two games of the American League Division Series.

For Berkman, coming to the Bronx hasn’t been easy. A Texas man with Rice University in his blood, Berkman spent 12 years and played 1592 games for the Astros. At age 34, his health is failing him, but he can still hit right-handers. The Yankees picked him up in a salary dump for Mark Melancon, and while Berkman moved from the bottom of the NL Central to the top of the AL East, he was hesitant about the trade. He didn’t want to leave Texas and had no idea what New York held for him.

His regular season stint in New York wasn’t a booming success. In limited duty, he hit .255/.358/.349, and he didn’t power his one home run over the fence until his 32nd game in pinstripes. Yankee fans grew to despise Berkman when he made some fielding flubs in Tampa Bay and later hit A-Rod on the shin with a line drive during batting practice. Berkman’s two months on the Yanks resembled something out of the Murphy’s Law Handbook to Baseball.

Yet, with four at-bats on Thursday, Lance put the bad will behind him. He went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run and two runs batted in. His fifth inning home run put the Yanks up 2-1, and his seventh inning double put the Yanks on top for good as Jorge Posada scored from first. A week ago, Lance was an after-thought. Today, we love him.

With Lance’s bat providing the offensive thunder, Kerry Wood’s once-golden right arm has given the Yanks a solid set-up option in front of Mariano Rivera. We all know the Kerry Wood story — 20 strike outs at age 21, an arm injury, some good years a starter, overuse, more injuries, a move to the bullpen. After burning out in Chicago, Wood found success in the pen, but he seemed to flounder in Cleveland.

Dealing with some minor injuries, Wood’s first 23 appearances this year were less than impressive. As the trade deadline rolled around, Kerry was 1-4 with a 6.30 ERA, but he had 18 strike outs in 20 innings. Yankee scouts liked what they saw, and for cash, the Yanks got Kerry.

Since arriving in the Bronx, Wood has been revelation. He walks too many guys — 6.2 per 9 innings in 26 innings — but he’s striking out over 10 per 9 IP. His ERA in the Bronx was, with a little bit of luck, a minuscule 0.69. He’s inherited the role left, with little confidence, to Joba Chamberlain, and he came through in a big spot on Thursday. With the Yanks up 4-2, the Twins sent up J.J. Hardy, Denard Span and Orlando Hudson in the 8th. To strike out Hardy, Wood threw a literal knee-buckling breaking pitch. Span grounded back to Wood, and Hudson struck out on pure heat.

Wood and Berkman are the ideal deadline pick-ups for the Yanks. They’re veteran players with playoff experience and success who were toiling away on bad teams. For dollars, the Yanks could augment their roster and build up a bullpen and a bench. That’s how Brian Cashman, with the Yanks’ deep pockets at his disposal, should run his team.

The future for these two current playoff heroes remains hazy. Lance Berkman says he wants to play everyday next year. “I don’t like to platoon,” he said. “If I was the manager I would platoon me because I’ve been so bad righthanded this year. But I don’t think that’s a permanent problem. I like to play every day. The DH role is great but I also like to play the field. I feel like I’ve got something to offer still defensively.”

Kerry Wood’s deal features a club option for $11 million in 2011. That’s closer money, and unless Mariano Rivera unexpectedly retires, Wood will seek employment elsewhere. He has the mentality for the 9th inning and indications are that he wants to close. He and Berkman will be just a pair of rent-a-Yankees.

The Yankees certainly know that Wood and Berkman probably won’t return. They know that these two key cogs are fleeting, and they’re going to ride them for all they can. Girardi will give Wood the ball for the 8th, and he’ll let Berkman take his hacks against right-handers. Bring in the mercenaries with money, push them for the playoffs, and ride their coattails to victory. So far, it’s a winning formula.