You've got Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' superstar third baseman and his $33,000,000 salary standing over Nick Punto, the Twins' utility infielder and his $4,000,000 salary.
Punto had just been tagged out after over-running third base in the eighth inning of the Yankees' series-clinching 4-1 victory in Game 3 last night. The combined 2009 salaries of of the three Yankees who combined to throw out Punto is $68,700,000.
Since in sports, salary is usually (repeat: usually) correlated to ability, maybe we shouldn't be suprised that the Yankees made this play, or won the series. When you shell out $68,700,000 for three guys, you expect them to come through when it matters. And when you have a team payroll north of $200,000,000, well, you expect to win.
But the Punto play is a perfect example of the plight of small-market teams: It's not that they can't beat their big-market brethren. It's simply that their margin for error is razor-thin.
Because for all the inherent advantages the Yankees unlimited revenue streams provide them—and there are many—New York could probably be down two games to one right now. At the very worst, the Twins should be looking at a very winnable Game 4 against Chad Gaudin.
But the Twins made mistakes. They failed to capitalize on oppurtunities. That, as much as any "Rich team, poor team" lamentations, is why their season ended.
In Game 2, it was Carlos Gomez's base-running gaffe in the 4th inning that saw him tagged out seconds before Delmon Young crossed the plate. Not only did the mistake cost the Twins a run, but with high-priced free-agent A.J. Burnett perhaps on the cusp of one of his meltdowns, it might have cost them even more.
Then it was Joe Nathan's inability to close out the game in the 9th inning with a 3-1 lead Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez at the plate.
As two of the Yankees biggest recent aqquisitions, they were expected to come through in the clutch. But it wasn't like the Twins were relying on some unproven rookie to get them through the inning. They had their best pitcher, Joe Nathan, on the mound.
In same ways, this was the perfect example of how the Yankees and Twins differ. Teixeira and Rodriguez are Yankees for a simple reason: The Yankees could pay them what others could not.
Nathan, on the other hand, was on the Twins because of a brilliant trade executed by the Twins prior to the 2004 season. No lavish contracts. Just a smart General Manager who got the better of his trade partner.
It was a study in contrast. It was also a match-up the Twins had to win. Sure, it's a tough assignment for Nathan. But if Mariano Rivera can stop Joe Mauer in the 8th inning, Nathan can stop Teixeria and Rodriguez.
When he didn't, the Twins had blown another opportunity.
In the 11th, after a blown call left the Twins with the bases loaded and no-one out, Minnesota had another golden opportunity to put the game away.
Standing in their way wasn't some high-priced, experienced free agent reliever, brought in by a free-spending organization. It was at 24-year old, 17th-round draft pick named David Robertson, who was making his first ever postseason appearance and had pitched only 74 innings in his career to that point.
This wasn't a David vs. Goliath match-up. This was, well, David vs. David. But when the Twins failed to produce a run, well, the Yankees made them pay, and it was Teixeira who launched a home run just over the left-field wall for the win.
This is what happens. A big-market team like the Yankees can make a base-running error and survive because hey, next inning, there's a bunch of all-stars coming to the plate. Eventually, the talent wins out. The key for the small-market teams is to limit how long "eventually" lasts.
In Game 3, Punto's mistake negated a first and thrid, no-one out situation. Instead of having an inexperienced Phil Hughes trying to get out of a major jam, and ensuring their best hitters would come up in a run-producing situation against a struggling reliever, the Twins killed a rally and when the best hitter in the American League in Joe Mauer came up, there was a lonely runner on first and Mariano Rivera on the mound.
The rest is history.
Anyone can tell you the Yankees money has resulted in them having a team built to win. But these two games against the Twins show that no amount of money can buy a perfect team.
The Twins were at a distinct disadvantage heading into this series because of the talent gap created by the payroll gap. But, don't let the money fool you. The Yankees were there for the taking. It might have taken perfect, mistake-free baseball from Minnesota, but that's the reality for small-market teams.
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