Double (Play) Trouble

The Yankees entered this year’s American League Division Series 3-7 in their last 10 Game Ones, and 7-3 in their last 10 series. They lost Game 1 to the Twins in the ALDS last year, as they did to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and as they did to the Marlins in the World Series. And when the Marlins beat the Yankees, it wasn’t because they won the first game.

The Yankees were expected to pitch poorly and hit well in this series, but last night they pitched well and hit … they hit well, but not in the clutch, and they ran themselves out of two innings and grounded into double plays in three others. Johan Santana didn’t beat them last night, they beat themselves.

There are a dozen reasons to look at last night’s game and say the Yankees are still alive, and another dozen to say they’re toast. The truth is, while last night’s game brought them 33% closer to elimination, it was one game and should not be viewed as anything more important or less important than that.

Right off the bat, the Yankees had a chance to open up the game, getting runners on first and second with one out in the bottom of the first. But with two strikes on Bernie Williams, Joe Torre tried to stay out a potential double play by starting the runners, and ended up running right into one. Williams struck out, and Alex Rodriguez was thrown out easily at third base to end the inning and the threat. With the probable Cy Young award winner on the mound, it appeared to be a lost opportunity they wouldn’t get back.

But they did get it back, getting the first two runners on in the second, moving Jorge Posada to third on a deep fly to left by Ruben Sierra. But again, they ran themselves back to the dugout by sending Posada home on a normal fly ball to center by John Olerud. Posada was thrown out easily, and that threat was ended.

At no point in the evening did Santana appear dominant, yet at no point did the Yankees take advantage and bring a run across the plate. With Mike Mussina keeping the game close, it was an enormous lost opportunity. Even a little bit of clutch hitting — a well-timed double, or a couple of singles — would have given the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the series. They cannot possibly expect Santana to be as normal again as he was last night, which means they will need an even better performance from Mussina to win, and a better performance by their lineup, too.

Not even the 2-0 score can give much comfort, because the two runs came off of their most reliable starter lately, Mussina, who will have to face Santana again if the series goes that long. The question marks in the rotation will be the ones they have to rely on the rest of the way. The 5-2 record in their last seven series in which they lost Game 1 is no comfort, because they came with much more reliable starters following their Game 1 starter in the rotation. This time Mussina is followed by Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez.

But it’s not yet time to despair, of course. As uncertain as their rotation is the rest of the way, the Yankees know that the Twins’ pitchers are ones who they can score off of. Brad Radke was outstanding this season, but strikes no fear in the hearts of hitters, and Carlos Silva was solid this season, but was hammered by New York in the Metrodome in August.

Most importantly, the postseason is a collection of single games. What seems likely to happen is often not what happens at all. Don Larsen was not a great pitcher, but on one October afternoon in 1956, he was perfect. Mark Lemke nearly carried the Braves to a World Championship in 1991, Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino won World Series games in 2000. Aaron Boone won the pennant last year, and Mark Prior and Kerry Wood lost back-to-back games to cost the Cubs the pennant.

That could cost the Yankees, it could help them, or it might not even make any difference. The point is that we really can’t see what’s going to happen ahead of time, and to see the Yankees losing a game they could have won, but were expected to lose, we can’t say they’re any worse off than they were a day earlier.

Maybe that’s just spin, maybe a last shriek on the retreat. Maybe the Yankees are really dead, but until that last out is made, I’m not buying it. One game does not a series make, and while Game 2 becomes crucial now, what happened in Game 1 doesn’t change the equation at all.

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