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October 6, 2003

Victory! (Part One)
by Larry Mahnken

I believed that the Yankees entered the playoffs with the "easiest" road to the World Series, simply because they were more likely to win their series than any other team, and to win it quicker, allowing them to set their rotation. I felt that the only way Twins could win was to play great, while the Yankees played poorly. I guess I was sort of right.

The Yankees did beat the Twins in four games, and now they can use their regular rotation in the ALCS--Mussina, Pettitte, Clemens, and Wells. But it wasn't easy. The Twins pitched very well for the first three games, the Yankees hit poorly, and their defense was exposed in Game One.

But the Twins didn't hit well, and it cost them the series. Part of that has to be the Yankees' pitching, but a large part of it was the fact that the Twins aren't a very good offensive team to begin with, and that they constructed their lineup poorly.

I complain about Joe Torre's lineup construction...constantly. The problem with the Yankees is more one of utilization, wasting their strengths by putting a low-OBP/high-SLG batter at the top of the lineup, and a low-SLG/high-OBP batter in the middle of it. In the end, they still have good hitters in those spots. but a switch could result in more production.

The Twins, on the other hand, had problems with not only their lineup construction, but with which the choices they had made assembling their roster, and choosing who to put in the lineup in the first place. While not having any great hitters, like a Giambi or a Posada, the Twins could fairly be said to have five good hitters: Corey Koskie, Shannon Stewart, Doug Mientkiewicz, A.J. Pierzynski, and Silent Bob. The strength of these hitters was mainly in OBP, not power, making it more important that these batters be bunched together to maximize run scoring opportunities. The Twins also had two players of absolutely no offensive value--Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas. Lacking superior options in the middle infield, the Twins had to play them, but it should be a no-brainer that they bat at the bottom of the lineup, to minimize their plate appearances.

Well, the Twins batted Guzman ninth, but thanks to the doctrine of speed, Luis Rivas showed the Yankees his fantastic out making abilities from the second spot all series long and got on base...(drumroll)...ZERO TIMES! Let's everybody give Luis a big hand! Way to go, Luis! Of course, Shannon Stewart only got on base SEVEN times in the four game series, so those outs weren't wasted, they pretty much killed the Twins.

Gardenhire also inexplicably batted Corey Koskie, perhaps the Twins' best hitter, at the bottom of the lineup the entire series (though understandable in Games 2 and 4, as he's Luis Rivas vs. lefties), and A.J. Pierzynski, a fine hitter in his own right, at the bottom every game until the last one (again, odd, because he also hits lefties worse than righties).

Doug Mientkiewicz, the first baseman, had a respectable season, but one has to wonder why they kept him and let go of David Ortiz, who makes $500,000 less for the Red Sox. Ortiz would have been the one dangerous bat in the Twins' lineup, and could have made an enormous difference in this series. I know the answer--Mientkiewicz is as smooth as Keith Hernandez with the glove, while Ortiz is a smooth as an oatmeal-raisin cookie. But the offfensive power of Ortiz so greatly drowns out his defensive shortcomings, it was a foolish decision to keep Mientkiewicz--and for more.

But while it's a nice exercise to look at how the Twins could have constructed their roster and their lineup, and might have won, the fact is that the Twins had a positively Boone-esque .529 OPS in this series, and that they stayed close only because the Yankees weren't able to hit the Twins' pitching, and once that happened, it was over. Stewart and Torii Hunter were brilliant in the series, but nobody else hit over .250 for the Twins. Perhaps it was the Yankees' pitching, but it was a terrible showing by the Minnesota lineup, too.

Now the Yankees move on the ALCS, where they'll face Oakland or Boston, and be in about as good a position as they could have hoped for to beat them. With Zito and Pedro going tonight, neither pitcher will be available until Game Three of the ALCS, against Roger Clemens.

The ALCS promises to be exciting no matter who wins tonight, and while the two best teams in the National League were knocked out of the playoffs, the Cubs trying to break their 58-year pennant drought is about as compelling a story as MLB could hope for this October.

Already, this has been one of the best postseasons ever, and these have been the kind of games that make new fans. It's a good thing that you had to pay to see most of the games.