Tampa, FL, March 5 — There was some good, but more bad, in the Yankees’ first loss Wednesday afternoon. The Yanks had their customary early thunder, but only after new Minnesota left fielder Delmon Young put them in a 1-0 hole with a second-inning home run on a 3-1 Ian Kennedy fast ball.
The suddenly (to no surprise really) red-hot Robbie Cano started his second consecutive three-hit game by driving a 1-1 Kevin Slowie offering into the gap in left center. Center fielder Carlos Gomez, also new to the Twins, froze briefly then broke for the ball, but it was already past him. Cano cruised into second, Wilson Betemit followed with a double that one-hopped against the center field wall, and we were watching a tie game.
It wasn’t tied up for long. Betemit came home on a single by Johnny Damon, who promptly stole second while Jeter was walking. Abreu singled for a 3-1 lead, and the shaky Gomez threw home wildly, missing the cutoff man. Both the Captain and Bobby Breu moved up 90 feet, but Slowie recovered to strike out A-Rod. With Ian Kennedy’s 34-pitch, two-inning start yielding nothing but a first-inning single (promptly removed on a double play) and the Young home run, lefty Heath Phillips worked the third one-two-three. Locked in a battle with Billy Traber and a few others for the lefty spot in the pen, Phillips kept pace with an-eight pitch, one-strikeout frame.
The quick break over, the home team offense started right up again on a Jason Giambi single to left center. It was Jason’s second hard liner that way for a hit this campaign, which bespeaks good things. Giambi really does appear to be in top shape, as he had shown with back-to-back good plays to end the top of the second. He snatched Brian Buscher’s hard liner, then came off the bag to tag an approaching DH Jon Knott after Jeter’s throw sailed a bit right. Now Jason was balked to second then Cano (!) singled up the middle. Giambi circled third and headed home, a destination he made easily once Gomez hit his cutoff and Cano was tagged out approaching second as Jason scored. The out-for-run trade gave the Yanks a 4-1 lead.
The Yankee offense then came to a halt, one that you would have to credit to the guy the Twins brought in to pitch the fourth and the fifth, a surprisingly sharp Randy Keisler. The ex-Yankee southpaw gave up a single to Jeter but struck out one and walked none. Lefty Dennis Reyes pitched the sixth. Melky Cabrera has been hitting the ball well to start the spring, through he had struck out twice thus far and he was about to ground into a key double play. Cano started with his third hit, and an infield bobble at second on Morgan Ensberg gave the Yanks two on with none out. But Alexi Casilla, in at short after Tolbert was hit, made a sparkler on a Melky hot shot, finessing his way to the second base bag and throwing around the runner. In for Damon, Shelley Duncan struck out to end the threat.
Melky would provide two of several Yankee highlights in the next five frames, but otherwise it was all Minnesota. The Twins surprised the home crowd by starting a counterattack against Joba Chamberlain; they did not stop there. Pitching the fourth and fifth, Joba was wilder than we’ve seen him (excepting a certain time in Cleveland that needn’t be discussed), and he went to a three-ball count to three of the first four batters he faced. The young righty walked one but escaped the fourth with a ground out. He started the fifth allowing a single, but the ensuing much-applauded strike out of Knott cost him seven pitches, as the righty DH fouled off five. Right fielder Garret Jones took one off the plate, then drove the next high and far to the new Legend Filed right field pavilion to close the score to 4-3. Joba immediately took care of business by plunking shortstop Matt Tolbert. Gomez followed with his best bid, a liner to short center, but the focussed Cabrera showed how it was done with a quick break in and long run to snag it. Jeter amd Cano combined on a nice force at second and Joba’s day was over.
The Twins tied it against Jonathan Albaladejo, who came on for two but couldn’t finish them. It was Melky to the rescue again, as he threw backup cathcher Jose Morales out at third once he tagged up following a double in the sixth. But in the seventh, two singles around a stolen base knotted the game. Edwar Ramirez was all over the place in the eighth, and it showed, as the visitors scored three on a walk, hit by pitch, single, and double. A Colin Curtis diving catch in left field helped end it, but it was on that play that the seventh run scored. Most significant in that four-batter streak, perhaps, was that Shelley Duncan, in for Giambi at first, reacted poorly to Alejandro Machado’s grounder down the line, a setback for the young stud. Russ Ohlendorff was masterful in the top of the ninth, and Shelly did come through with a long home run to close the score to 7-5. A Chris Woodward single brought tying run Jason Lane to the plate, but he took strike three on a full count and the Twins had the 7-5 win in 3:05.
It was hard not to look at this game without seeing it through the prism of the long offseason struggle regarding the Twins’ attempts to trade ace southpaw Johan Santana, particularly in how they affected the Yankees. To all reports, one of the reasons the Twins failed to pull the trigger on a swap involving righty Phil Hughes and Melky was that they didn’t want Melky. With great offers from the Yankees and the Red Sox eventually withdrawn, the Twins settled on four young players from the Mets, with their center fielder this day Gomez the “center”piece of the swap.
Melky’s play showed just how ineffective the Twins’ judgement was, at least on day one of the comparison. Cabrera played flawless defense, ended one rally with a great play, and quashed another with a bullet peg to third. Gomez went 0-for-5 at leadoff, he failed to utilize his great speed in center because he did not break well on balls, and he missed his cutoff man on the first of two potential plays at the plate for an error. Of course, it was a good sign that on the next, his throw was correct and accurate, garnering him an assist, the same number of assists Melky got. This is deceiving, however, as Cabrera has one of the best outfield arms in the game, strong and accurate, a significant upgrade. It was just impossible to watch Carlos play and not wonder how much better the Twins might have been with Cabrera out there (not to mention Hughes!) instead. “Suppose Melky was there and threw that ball home…?” Or “Suppose Melky broke poorly and Gomez singled for a run?”
On March 5, 1461, England’s King Henry VI was deposed by the Duke of York during the War of the Roses, the several-generation battle between the Houses of Kent and Lancaster. Five hundred forty-seven years later, the Twins won a Spring Training game against the Yankees Wednesday afternoon.
But they lost the first skirmish in the War of the “Suppose”s.