10/12/09 12:51 AM ET
Punto's slipup a gift for Yankees
In eighth, second baseman is tagged out in crucial play at third
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
It hardly mattered. In the previous two games, the Twins had a tough time crossing the plate anyway.On Sunday, Minnesota ran itself out of the postseason with none out in the eighth inning of New York's 4-1 win when Nick Punto rounded third base and was caught trying to dive headfirst back into the bag. It was the Twins' third baserunning gaffe in the final two games and took the team out of a last-gasp rally, with the score 2-1 at the time. "Nick Punto, no one felt worse than him," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He thought it was a base hit. He didn't pick up [third-base coach] Scott [Ullger] rounding third. He had his head down. [Derek] Jeter makes a play, and there you have it." Denard Span singled up the middle on a ball that seemed destined to skip into center field. But the Yankees' shortstop glided over and grabbed the ball as Punto started heading toward the plate. Punto opened the inning with a double to left-center off New York reliever Phil Hughes, who replaced Joba Chamberlain to start the frame. Jeter quickly tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who nailed Punto diving in. "I saw him turn the base out of the corner of my eye," Posada said. "It was a bang-bang play. Jeter made a perfect throw to me at the plate. It just happened real quick." Television replays clearly showed Ullger giving Punto the red light with both hands signaling him to stop, but to no avail. Ullger did everything except tackle Punto. "He just never looked up, and that's what I'm there for. I'm there to help," Ullger told The St. Paul Pioneer Press. "He did look up eventually, but obviously, it was too late. Jeter made the play. He's so instinctual; he seemed to be making the play and looking to see what Nicky was doing at the same time." "It was one of those things where crowd noise got me a little bit," Punto said. "The fans were just excited that they saw there wasn't going to be a play at first base. There were [54,735] people screaming, and I felt like that ball might have gone through. It's a huge play in that game, and I can't let that happen. It's a little tough to swallow right now." With Span on first and one out, the rally died. Hughes retired Orlando Cabrera on a popup to center, and Mariano Rivera came on to finish the inning by inducing Joe Mauer to dribble a grounder to first. It was the third baserunning gaffe for the Twins over the course of 16 innings, and Jeter was involved in all of them. "It was huge at the time," the Yanks' captain said about the eighth-inning play. "That team plays very tough. This game and the previous one could have gone either way. If you're going to win a series, you've got to get some breaks. We made some breaks." In Game 2 on Friday night at Yankee Stadium in the fourth inning, Carlos Gomez fell while rounding second on a base hit by Matt Tolbert, costing the Twins a crucial run in a game they lost, 4-3, in 11 innings on Mark Teixeira's walk-off homer. Right fielder Nick Swisher tossed the ball to Jeter. Delmon Young was a few steps from home when Jeter applied the tag on Gomez, negating the run. And in the fifth inning on Sunday night, Michael Cuddyer, running from first, headed back to that bag when a liner by Jason Kubel eluded second baseman Robinson Cano and went into right field. Cuddyer reversed course and tried to reach second, but he was forced out on Swisher's throw, which, of course, went to Jeter. "Cano missed it," Gardenhire said. "It was a line drive right to him, and he just missed the ball. He was trying not to get doubled [off], and that's another one of those freaky plays. It's a line drive right toward [Cano's] glove, and you have to freeze. He had to freeze and start back to first, because he thought Robbie was going to catch the ball. "Then he got caught in no-man's land. There's nothing he could do about it. Really, it's just another play. Yankee luck. They had it there. They had it all series. They got the breaks."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.