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Rincon tips his hat to Yankees
10/09/2004 11:46 PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire could only remember two times when Juan Rincon failed to hold down the opponent when he needed. Unfortunately, the second time Rincon didn't will be remembered more than all the times he did.

"It's tough to blow a four-run lead in the eighth when your team is in the game," Rincon said after Saturday's 6-5 loss to the Yankees knocked Minnesota out of the postseason. "Nobody wants to be in my [shoes] right now, let me tell you."

Maybe not, but a lot of Twins were trying to stand beside him.

"There's always going to be that inning where they try to put something together and have good at-bats," closer Joe Nathan said. "They could do that against anyone. Today they decided to do it against Juanny. He's been one of the best all year. He has nothing to hang his head over. He had a great year and threw outstanding. He should just tip his hat to the other guys, because they were better than him today. Nothing to be ashamed of."

Maybe not shame, but there's at least shock. Rincon threw three hitless innings against the Yankees in New York, including four strikeouts in two perfect innings of Game 2 with the game tied. He hadn't given up a run since the Twins were in New York in the last week of the regular season and he hadn't given up more than two hits in an outing since Aug. 6.

That's why whether Johan Santana went five innings or six, manager Ron Gardenhire planned to hand the eighth to Rincon.

"That's been his inning the whole year," Gardenhire said. "Rincon has done that all year for us, been there all year for us. I can only think of two times he hasn't gotten it done."

The first time Gardenhire recalled was a July 22 game at home against Tampa Bay. Like Saturday, he entered the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead. Like Saturday, he gave up four runs to tie the game. All of them came on Rocco Baldelli's grand slam following two walks and a single.

On Saturday, he came out aggressively, putting Gary Sheffield in an 0-2 hole before Sheffield singled through the left side. With the potential tying run still three batters away, his outing fell apart, though it didn't feel like it.

"I wasn't throwing strikes," he said, "but I had a lot of confidence in my pitches and myself."

Rincon threw three straight balls to Hideki Matsui before walking him on five pitches. Bernie Williams' line-drive single to right-center plated Sheffield and brought that potential tying run to the plate. Jorge Posada took five consecutive pitches from Rincon to bring the count full before Rincon induced a swing and miss.

That was his only out pitch of the night, but it was his most important. It's the pitch he went back to when he had a 2-2 count on Ruben Sierra.

"I wanted to throw the ball down and in," Rincon said. "That was the same pitch that I threw to Posada and struck him out. I wanted to do the same thing, but I opened my shoulders a little bit and then the ball stayed high. It didn't do anything."

Sierra put a home run swing on it, sending it soaring towards the folded-in football seats in right field. By the time it hit, the Metrodome crowd had been brought to near complete silence.

Facts machine: 2-2 much
Juan Rincon gave up five home runs in 77 regular-season outings. Two of those home runs came on 2-2 counts, the same count on which Sierra hit his game-tying homer Saturday. Seven of his 16 career regular-season home runs allowed came on either 2-2 or 3-2 counts.

When the Yankees won Game 2 off of Nathan, the debate turned to why Gardenhire allowed Nathan to throw a third inning. Here, there wasn't much to debate. From the team's standpoint, there wasn't much to blame, either.

"Sierra could've fouled that pitch off, too, but he hit it," Gardenhire said. "That's what baseball players do."

Said Torii Hunter: "The season he had was awesome. Just one mistake. Rincon had an outstanding year, man."

Rincon was clearly, understandably distraught over the ordeal. The 25-year-old who pitches like he's at least five years more experienced, spent a long time in the clubhouse before returning to his locker with a few reporters still waiting. By then, he had calmly come to grips with his situation.

"Those are good hitters," Rincon said. "You have to tip your hat to them. It's not like they haven't done it before. I don't know. I tried to get my job done, but it didn't happen this time."

It's the same thing he heard from one player after another after the game. It's what he'll likely remember as much as Sierra's shot.

"The team wouldn't have made it that far if I wasn't pitching. That's what they were saying," Rincon said. "They're great guys. That's why we make it so far, because we've got a great heart."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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