I wasn’t worried about Game 2 as I walked into Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Because of the quick turnaround with the 5:07 p.m. start, I was a little tired and still a little hungover, but I was as confident about the Yankees as I was when I left the Stadium less than 18 hours earlier. After watching the Twins have trouble beating the Replacement Yankees during the regular season and after watching the Twins unsuccessfully use their best starter in Game 1, I couldn’t have been more calm and more relaxed before a postseason game. But what had me feeling great about Game 2 was the Twins’ decision to start a rookie with 28 1/3 career innings to his name and less-than-desirable strikeout numbers against this Yankees lineup in New York.
Everyone knows Randy Dobnak’s story at this point: an undrafted independent league pitcher who was driving for Uber and Lyft before getting a chance with the Twins. And for anyone at the Stadium who didn’t know it, they found out as the crowd serenaded Dobnak with “U-BER … U-BER … U-BER” chants throughout his two-plus innings of work. My expectations for the Yankees to solve Dobnak — who they had never seen — were quickly met in the first inning when D(erek) J(eter) LeMahieu doubled to lead off the game and Aaron Judge followed with a walk. Two batters later, Edwin Encarnacion drove in LeMahieu with a single, the Yankees had the lead and Dobnak had thrown 19 pitches, recorded one out and was already trailing with two men still on base. Dobnak escaped the first inning without further damage and pitched around two, two-out singles in the second, but in the third inning, facing the lineup for a second time after it had already had success against him the first, things unraveled for the right-hander.
Nine pitches into the third, Dobnak had loaded the bases with no outs after Judge singled, Brett Gardner walked and Encarnacion singled. Dobnak was removed from the game with his team trailing by one and still responsible for all three runners on base. Tyler Duffey, arguably the Twins’ best reliever, and one of their “elite” arms, which were said to be elite enough to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees’ relievers prior to the series entered for the second straight night, and for the second straight night, made sure his teammate got tagged with his inherited runners.
Giancarlo Stanton had a productive at-bat with a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0 and then Gleyber Torres came through with an 0-2 single to make it 3-0. Gary Sanchez got hit by an 0-2 pitch to reload the bases, bringing up Didi Gregorius, who struggled all season after returning from Tommy John surgery to the point it was a legitimate question if the Yankees were better off with Torres at short and Gregorius on the bench rather than playing with an automatic out in the lineup.
Two years after Gregorius saved the Yankees’ season in the first inning of the 2017 wild-card game against the Twins, he was about to put the Twins’ historic 101-win season on the brink of elimination. Gregorius fell behind Duffey 0-2, but battled to extend the at-bat by three more pitches. The third pitch ended up in the second deck in right field for a grand slam to give the Yankees a 7-0 lead. With one out in the bottom of the third, Game 2 was over.
It was over because for the second straight game, the offense had exploded. Finishing Game 2 with eight runs, the Yankees had produced 18 runs in two postseason games, a ridiculous number, and a number that isn’t supposed to be possible at this time of year. But the game was also over because Masahiro Tanaka, the most trusted Yankees postseason pitcher once again stepped up in October.
There was a lot of concern and a lack of trust for Tanaka entering the postseason because of another inconsistent regular season (though his numbers were marred by two awful starts) and because his 1.80 career postseason ERA was being attributed by many as luck. His postseason career FIP was in line with his regular-season career FIP, and therefore, his much lower ERA was being called a result of luck. It couldn’t be because Tanaka is a much different pitcher in the biggest games. It couldn’t be because Tanaka thrives on the postseason stage, never having allowed more than two earned runs in a postseason start. It had to be because of luck.
In Game 2, Tanaka pitched to this line: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K. A night after James Paxton was oddly being heralded as having pitched well (4.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 2 HR) against a vaunted Twins lineup, Tanaka actually did pitch well, dominating the all-time, single-season home run team. I’m not sure how many impressive postseason starts it will take Tanaka for Yankees fans to unanimously accept he’s a different pitcher in October, or maybe he will just continue to be the luckiest postseason pitcher of all time.
Tanaka didn’t need to be his dominant October self in Game 2, considering the performance the offense put together, but he was anyway. The lone run against him came when Mitch Garver weakly tapped a ground ball to a vacated second base with Torres shifting on the left side of the infield. And with two on and one out in the fourth, the Twins trailing 8-1 and trying to get back into the game, Tanaka struck out Luis Arraez and Miguel Sano on a combined eight pitches to end the inning. In his last inning of work in the fifth, he pitched a perfect, 10-pitch frame, before handing the ball off to the bullpen for the sixth, in order to not face the heart of the order for a third time.
The win improved the Yankees to 15-2 against the Twins in the postseason with the two losses coming in 2003 and 2004 and against Johan Santana. But throughout all the postseason meetings against the Twins, the Yankees never easily or handily beat them the way they have in the first two game of this ALDS. Whether it was overcoming 0-1 series deficits to Santana, or needing Alex Rodriguez to single-handedly win a game or Ruben Sierra to hit a massive late-game home run or Joe Nathan to implode in the ninth inning or Lance Berkman to create a comeback or Gregorius to save the season, the Yankees have always beat the Twins, but they have always had to truly work for it and put a scare into the entire fan base on their way to winning. Games 1 and 2 this have both resulted in eventual laughers.
I have been worried for three-and-a-half innings in this series. The first two-and-a-half innings of Game 1 when the Yankees trailed 2-0, the top of the fifth in Game 1 when the Twins tied the game at 3 against Paxton and the top of the first in Game 1 when Tanaka had two baserunners on. Aside from those innings, the Yankees have held the lead for the entire series.
The Yankees have won the first two games of the postseason the way any team wins in the postseason: timely hitting and great pitching. Though they didn’t necessarily get “great” pitching in Game 1, they got “good enough” pitching and more than enough timely hitting to make up for it. The pitching staff has held the second-best offense in baseball this season and the top home run-hitting team in baseball history to six runs in two games. They are getting production from each third of the lineup, and have scored 18 runs in 16 innings without either Stanton or Sanchez getting a hit yet. The best part of it all is the offense has taken Aaron Boone and any wild in-game managerial stunts he might pull completely out of the series. The first two games couldn’t have gone any better for the Yankees.
The series isn’t over yet, but it’s close to being over. The Twins used their best starting pitcher in Game 1 and lost. The Yankees have their best starting pitcher going in Game 3 with a chance to advance to the ALCS.
Two down, nine to go.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!