Let’s be frank. The Yankees have taken the Twins to the woodshed this millennium. The Twins have lost every season series to New York since 2001. And the playoffs have been even more lopsided, as the Yankees are 16-2 against the Twins with a 13-game winning streak going back to 2004. That’s part of a 16-game playoff slide overall.
The Twins’ postseason futility has aggravated, tormented and depressed the local fan base.
The seminal moment in this saga might have occurred in the first game of the losing streak, when the Yankees — a night after losing 2-0 to Johan Santana — benefited from a fortuitous bounce in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS at Yankee Stadium.
What if the Twins had benefited from that bounce? What if Corey Koskie’s liner to left had not hopped into the stands for a ground-rule double?
The Twins trailed 5-3 going into the eighth inning but mounted an improbable rally. Jacque Jones, batting with one out, appeared to strike out against Tom Gordon but reached first base when the wild pitch went to the backstop. Torii Hunter followed with a single, and Yankees manager Joe Torre brought in the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.
Justin Morneau, then just 23 years old, blooped an RBI single to right to make it 5-4, and Koskie went to the plate with runners at the corners for the at-bat of his life.
Down 0-2, Koskie fouled off pitches and worked the count full. With the count 3-2, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire sent Luis Rivas in to pinch run for Morneau, a pretty clear sign that Rivas would be running on the pitch.
Gardy was about a foot from looking like a genius.
Koskie, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, lined the ball down the left-field line. The ball hit the warning track in fair territory but then bounced just over the fence for a ground-rule double. Rivas was going to score the lead run with ease, but instead was ordered to stop at third.
(I did a quick search and saw the walls at the old Yankee Stadium were listed at 10 feet high, but it sure looked shorter than that when I re-watched the game last week.)
“The one thing I do remember, from an individual standpoint, is my double against Mariano Rivera,” Koskie said in 2015. “The double that bounced out. By that much.”
The Twins still had runners on second and third and one out, but Rivera struck out 22-year-old Jason Kubel on three pitches, then retired Cristian Guzman on a comebacker to keep the score tied.
As it turned out, the game went into extra innings, with the Twins taking the lead in the 12th on Hunter’s home run but losing 7-6 in the bottom of the inning, when Joe Nathan ran out of gas in his third inning of relief. Derek Jeter scored when Jones caught a Hideki Matsui line drive in medium deep right field but inexplicably threw the ball to cutoff man Matthew LeCroy instead of home.
If Koskie’s ball stayed in the park, Nathan assuredly would have been in for the ninth inning, when the Yankees’ seven through nine hitters were due up. Perhaps Nathan, who saved 44 games and finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting that year, would have pitched both the eighth and the ninth.
The Twins would have led 2-0 in that best-of-five series, putting them squarely in the driver’s seat and all the pressure would have been on the Yankees. The Twins would have had three shots to win one game and perhaps mitigate the rise of the Yankees mystique that has hung over Twins territory for nearly 20 years.
And how far could the Twins have gone that year?
One more thing to consider if Koskie’s double stayed in play: There was a rising Twins star who missed most of that season because of knee surgery but was cleared to work out with the team, was going to face live pitching in the instructional league and probably would have been activated for the ALCS had the Twins made it.
His name: Joe Mauer.
Editor’s note: Do you have any suggestions for great “what-if” moments in Minnesota sports history? Send them to Michael Rand at firstname.lastname@example.org.