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Preview: Game 1, Twins at Yankees
10/04/2004 4:46 PM ET
NEW YORK -- After all the upgrades the Twins and Yankees have made over the past year, they've come back to this.

The Twins developed a Cy Young caliber ace and managed to turn a bullpen picked apart by free agency into an even more dominant staff than before. The Yankees turned to a new-generation rotation and built a dream lineup of All-Stars. Yet here they are again, facing each other in the AL Division Series for the second consecutive year.

It's the only one of the four first-round matchups that's the same as last year. It even features the same Game 1 starting pitchers that opened the series here in 2003. And somehow, so little is the same about the teams playing it.

The Twins' starter to open the series is the same guy as last year, but a different pitcher. When Johan Santana took the mound for Game 1 a year ago, the Twins lacked a clear-cut No. 1 starter. They now have one, and he's it.

Most teams needing an ace quickly try to acquire one. The Twins, fittingly, developed theirs.

The Twins have won just once at Yankee Stadium in the last three seasons, but six of those 10 Yankees victories have been by two runs or less. Two more were by three runs.
5/17/0213-12, Yankees
5/18/026-2, Yankees
5/19/023-0, Yankees
4/8/037-3, Yankees
4/9/032-1, Yankees
4/10/032-0, Yankees
9/30/033-1, Twins*
10/2/034-1, Yankees*
9/29/04 (1)5-3, Yankees
9/29/04 (2)5-4, Yankees
9/30/04 (3)6-4, Yankees
* postseason

"I think he's really learned a lot about pitching in a very short amount of time," his opposing pitcher, Mike Mussina, said Monday. "I think he knows he has good stuff. When you can throw 95 miles an hour and throw a 72 mile-an-hour changeup off of that and have some idea of where the ball is going, you're going to have pretty good success."

Pretty good success was last year. This season was time for dominance, an 18-game personal unbeaten streak that dates back to the All-Star break and the first 20-win season by a Minnesota pitcher since Brad Radke in 1997.

"We have a dominant starter," Hunter said. "Pitching and defense wins games, and I think we're pretty good at that."

The Yankees know that philosophy well, having ridden Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to a dynasty not so long ago. Both of them are back in the postseason, only they're wearing Houston Astros uniforms.

When Mussina started Game 1 last year, he was one cog in an experienced rotation that didn't offer hitters a break in a short series. He enters the rematch as the postseason ace in New York, looking to set the tone for a skilled, but less tested group behind him. Jon Lieber does his job in workmanlike fashion, but he hasn't tried it in the playoffs before. Orlando Hernandez and Kevin Brown have loads of postseason experience, but it'll all sit on the bench if they aren't healthy in the next few days.

Yet they're still the top seed in the American League, still coming off triple-digit victories in the regular season.

"When I look back, to win 100 games," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "the fact that we were without Moose for a period of time and without [Kevin Brown] for a long period of time and [Javier] Vazquez for a period of time and El Duque didn't come until the All-Star break, you wonder how you won a hundred games. But I think that's saying something about how this ballclub performs."

They perform a different mode of winning. Clemens and Pettitte aren't the feared names in a Yankees postseason anymore, but Sheffield and A-Rod are. They've been critiqued for their October potential far more than their summer accomplishments, but these Yankees can club their way through October just as easily as past squads pitched through it.

"I think we have come to rely more on the offense than in past years, yes," Torre said. "You know, I think with the number of come-from-behind victories we've had this year, I think we have abilities this year that we have not had in the past. Even if we are down four, five, six runs, we've done that."

That's what looms over Santana's start, a factor that becomes more forboding under the lights at Yankee Stadium. That's why losing Game 1 merely made the Yankees determined before they took the next three.

The difference for the Twins is that they've seen the Yankee Stadium aura. They witnessed it last year in Game 2, and they saw a glimpse of it when the Bronx Bombers clinched the AL East last week.

"You obviously learn how to deal with the environment that Yankee Stadium possesses, especially during playoff time," second baseman Michael Cuddyer said. "They love their baseball here. They know their baseball here. They're educated. So it's a lot of fun to come in here to play. We've been through it before, and I think that helps out a lot."

So could the lack of an off day after Game 1, something that last year's series featured. In retrospect, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire thinks the 48 hours between games helped slow their momentum after last year's series-opening victory, even though Game 2 was a close loss in the late innings. Now, Game 1 looms as potentially the only momentum swing before the series heads to Minnesota for Game 3.

So yes, it'll again be Mussina and Santana in Game 1, this time a night game instead of afternoon. Appropriately, the difference will be night and day.

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