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October 7, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to... wait, I've used this before, haven't I?

The feeling of euphoria that comes from a victory like this is unmatched. And for the fans of a team who have been jaded by uninterrupted winning in the past decade, this is perhaps the last thing that brings unrestrained joy. Winning divisions and making the playoffs has become expected, for a time winning World Championships was expected -- not necessarily demanded (though for some it certainly was) -- but simply something that didn't surprise you. Something like this is never expected, it always surprises you, it always brings you out of your chair.

Last year, it was Aaron Boone who brought Yankee fans out of their seats screaming, and while that homer won the pennant, it might not have been as big as this win. That game was tied, although the prospect of trying to get past the Red Sox without Rivera in the top of the 12th was not appealing. This time, the Yankees trailed by a run, and while the Red Sox had Tim Wakefield on the mound, the Twins were going with Joe Nathan, one of the more dominant relievers in the game this year.

But before the bottom of the 12th, there was a great ballgame played.

For the Yankees, it was a must-win, with the Twins having to feel like they have a win in their pocket with Johan Santana in Game Four. Unlike past must-win games, the Yankees had no ace to rely on, rather they had to rely on a good middle-of-the-rotation starter in Jon Lieber, going up against perhaps the best #2 in the AL, Brad Radke. If there was an equalizer, it was the lineups. Minnesota was unlikely to knock around Lieber, the Yankees were unlikely to get shut down by Radke.

But right away the Twins got on the board, they attacked Lieber's pitches and put them in play, strung together hits and scored the first run. But the lead lasted only a few pitches, as Derek Jeter led off against Radke by driving a ball into the black centerfield seats to tie the game at 1.

Again Minnesota took advantage of Lieber's excellent control and put up a 2-spot in the top of the 2nd, and Radke seemed to settle down into the third. But with one out in the bottom of the third, Alex Rodriguez singled to left, and Gary Sheffield ripped a line drive into the leftfield seats to tie the game again at 3.

They took the lead for the first time in the fifth, when A-Rod hit a ball over the left-centerfield fence to put the Yankees up 4-3, and in the bottom of the seventh, the Yankees tacked on an insurance run.

With Gordon in the game and Rivera in the pen, the game was over -- or it should have been. With one out in the eighth, Gordon struck out Jacque Jones, but the ghost of Mickey Owen blew the ball away from Posada, and Jones reached first. Torii Hunter singled to center, and Joe Torre took the slow walk to the mound.

The bullpen gate flew open, the PA began to blare the first notes of Metallica's "Enter Sandman", and 56,000 fans exploded in cheers. Through the gate and towards the mound ran the most accomplished closer in postseason history, Mariano Rivera, with the season on the line. His task: get two outs before the two runners on base could score, get three more in the ninth, and the Yankees would tie the American League Division Series at 1 game apiece.

Rivera had been in this position many times before, sometimes he had failed, usually he had succeeded. In previous seasons, the game would be all but over. But times have changed.

Rivera saved 53 games this season, and he finished with an ERA under 2.00. He was good this season -- very good, much like the team he's played his entire career with. But like the Yankees, Rivera has been less than perfect, less than he once was, he's struggled to close out several games, and lost two games against Boston in the ninth inning.

Two times Rivera had failed to get the job done in the postseason -- only two times. But both times he had failed, so had the Yankees. They had failed to win the game, and they failed to win the series. The Yankees had long depended on Rivera to dominate in October, and they were depending on him now.

And he failed them. This wasn't the 1997 Game Four Rivera, it was the 2001 Game Seven Rivera. A bloop hit to right-center scored a run and moved the tying run to third, a line-drive down the leftfield that bounced into the seats tied it, and moved the go-ahead run 90 feet away. Now Rivera struck out Kubel and retired Guzman, but it was too late. The game was tied, the lead was gone, and the tide had turned.

The Yankees had one foot in the grave, and the Twins were ready to push them in and start tossing in some dirt.

Rivera retired the side in order in the ninth, but that was all for him. Torre knew he needed to win this game, but he wasn't going to push Rivera any further. Now, the game was in the hands of... Tanyon Sturtze?

Yes, Tanyon Sturtze, who had been so hideous earlier in the season that he was only used in games that were out of reach, was now coming into a tied game that the Yankees absolutely had to win.

And even more surprisingly, he was almost dominant. He got out of the tenth and 11th without a huge amount of difficulty, and got the first two outs in the tenth. But then he left a pitch over the plate to Torii Hunter, and the Twins picked up their shovels.

The Yankees had been unable to do anything off of the Twins' top relievers, reaching base only once in four innings. That one time, a walk by Bernie Williams, would in fact prove decisive. Because of that walk, the Yankees led off the bottom of the 12th with John Olerud instead of Ruben Sierra, and Miguel Cairo came up with only one out. Cairo walked, Derek Jeter walked, and Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with the opportunity to erase every failure with runners in scoring position all year.

At the end of August, Rodriguez was batting .200 with RISP, and while he batted extremely well in those situations in September, his OPS was still a paltry .788 in those situations at season's end. He was 5 for 9 with a homer and 2 RBI in the series already, but this was the moment that people would remember, succeed or fail. Regardless of what he had done in past postseasons, this was the moment that would define his "clutchness" for many fans, right or wrong. For A-Rod, this at bat was bigger than Game 2, it was about his legacy as a Yankee.

With a mighty swing Rodriguez drove the ball again to the deepest part of the park. This time he didn't give it enough distance to cross the fence, but it was enough to go over Shannon Stewart's head. It bounced off the turf and over the wall for an automatic double. It tied the game and prevented the winning run from scoring, but with one out and the winning run on third, the Twins were forced to bring everyone win and hope the ball was hit hard at someone. They intentionally walked Sheffield, and brought in lefty Juan Rincon to pitch to Godzilla.

And they got what they wanted -- a line drive to right, but Jones' throw could not get Jeter at home, and the Yankees had won.

It's easy to make this victory as being bigger than it was. It ties the series, and gives the Yankees a real chance to win it that they probably wouldn't have had if they had lost last night. It forced the Twins to get either a win from Carlos Silva or against Mike Mussina in a Game 5 at Yankee Stadium to win the series, but those are both very much possible.

Emotionally, this win gives the Yankees a great lift and is a crushing blow to the Twins. But with a day off now, this emotion is unlikely to carry over very much, if at all. This saved the Yankees, it didn't kill the Twins.

If the Yankees don't win this series, at least they gave us one game to remember, and one night to smile. That won't be enough to satisfy George Steinbrenner or the fans, but for one night at least, New York goes to bed happy.