NEW YORK — Curtis Granderson and Lance Berkman have settled into their pinstripes at a most opportune time.
In an offensive funk during the summer swelter, their bats are heating up as the weather starts to turn colder. The pair have unexpectedly led the Yankees’ offense in the opening two games of the AL division series against the Minnesota Twins.
Not Derek Jeter. Not Alex Rodriguez. Not Jorge Posada. Not Robinson Cano.
Granderson and Berkman.
“That will bond you to your teammates really quickly, when you start getting big hits in the playoffs,” Berkman said.
After winning two games at Target Field, the defending World Series champions arrived home with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Phil Hughes tries to wrap up a sweep Saturday night and put New York into the AL championship series against Texas or Tampa Bay.
Brian Duensing pitches for the Twins.
“Obviously, the first two games didn’t go off as planned,” Minnesota star catcher Joe Mauer said. “But we were right there. A ball here or there, and we easily could be up 2-0. We know we can play with these guys, and we know we can get back in there.”
Minnesota went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position in the first two games, down from .285 during the regular season. That’s a big reason the Twins have lost 11 postseason games in a row, two shy of the record set by the Boston Red Sox from 1986-95.
Granderson and Berkman alone have more big hits than the Twins.
Granderson had a tiebreaking two-run triple in the sixth inning of the opener. He had three hits in the second game, doubling and scoring the tying run, then singling in the final run of New York’s 5-2 victory.
Quite a high, especially given that halfway into his first season with the Yankees he was hitting just .225 with 23 RBIs. A strained left going landed him on the disabled list for nearly a month.
Still, the gregarious 29-year-old, acquired from Detroit during the offseason, never altered his effervescent smile. Hitting coach Kevin Long spent eight consecutive cage sessions tinkering with Granderson’s swing, and Granderson responded with 25 RBIs from Sept. 1 on, by far his most productive stretch of the season.
Now that he’s hitting, Granderson seems to be particularly care free in his game preparation.
“Just make sure I’ve got some sugar-free bubble gum. That’s it,” he said Friday.
Berkman’s transition to New York was even harder. A member of the Houston Astros since he reached the major leagues in 1999, the 34-year-old was dealt at the trade deadline on July 31. He hit just .179 with four RBIs during his first month with the Yankees, and spent two weeks on the DL with a sprained right ankle. Long then worked to move him closer to the plate.
A home run off Carl Pavano matched Berkman’s regular-season total with the Yankees in what Berkman labeled the worst year of his career.
“Any time you go to a new team with a new group of guys, regardless whether it is New York or Kansas City, it will take some time to get adjusted,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re really part of the team until you have done something to help the team.”
Berkman sat in the opener against the Twins, then was dropped to eighth in the batting order for Game 2. He put the Yankees ahead 2-1 with a fifth-inning solo homer. Then, just after Orlando Hudson’s homer tied the score, Berkman gave New York the lead for good with an RBI double in the seventh.
Granderson sympathized with Berkman’s plight of switching teams in the summer. When Granderson joined the Yankees, he had spring training to adjust.
“I had that first-day-of-school kind of mentality,” Granderson said. “But when you come right in the middle of it, it’s always a little bit difficult — especially just learning the names. Yeah, you know some names, but there’s a lot of guys you haven’t seen before and until they turn around and see their number on their back, you don’t know who it is, at first.”
New arrivals spark a learning process. And not just for the players, but for the staff.
Long likes to study a player for an extended period before making suggestions. The process for pitchers is similar, and adjustments pitching coach Dave Eiland made with Kerry Wood after he arrived at the trade deadline helped turn him into a consistent setup man for Mariano Rivera.
“I know when we got Kerry Wood, Dave went right away and started watching video,” manager Joe Girardi said. “What made Kerry successful? We went back as far as the 20 strikeout game to look at that. Kevin Long looked at years that Lance Berkman was successful and what he was doing in his stance and all those different things. That’s the power of video.”
Only now does Berkman really think he belongs in baseball’s starriest and wealthiest clubhouse. When he first arrived, he felt perhaps not quite like an intruder, but a bit of a visitor.
“I don’t think you can take quite as much joy in a victory or the ultimate victory — let’s say we won the World Series — if you don’t participate,” he said. “If you are just sitting on the bench and watching and don’t do anything, it is hard to take as much joy as if you help them win the game.”