“It was just a crazy feeling, not a good one in the first,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “We’re just sitting there like, ‘All right, what are we going to do next?’”
But Chad Green stanched the early onslaught by striking out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro. Then David Robertson gutted his way through a career-high three and one-third shutout innings, and Tommy Kahnle retired Joe Mauer — who represented the tying run — on a fly ball that Gardner caught just in front of the left-field wall in the top of the sixth.
After throwing two and one-third perfect innings, Kahnle turned the ball over to Aroldis Chapman, who struck out Jorge Polanco to finish off the Twins and bring the Yankees out of the dugout for a rather muted celebration that turned raucous in the clubhouse, where they sprayed themselves with Champagne.
Perhaps the Yankees, who hugged and shook hands, were simply too tired from the nearly four-hour game, which General Manager Brian Cashman had dubbed “a steel-cage match” before it began.
It was Cashman who fortified the Yankees’ bullpen during the course of the season. None of the relievers who did the heavy lifting on Tuesday night were even with the team on opening day. Green was at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he remained until early May, and Robertson and Kahnle were acquired from the Chicago White Sox in mid-July.
Green, Kahnle and Robertson each entered with runners on base — only one of which scored.
“We knew once those doors opened that it was going to be tough to score,” Twins Manager Paul Molitor said of the Yankees’ bullpen. He added that Girardi “made the right choices.”
“He extended some guys probably past their comfort zone,” Molitor said of Girardi. “They still performed.”
The Yankees’ bullpen is so flush that Dellin Betances, the dominant setup man, never even warmed up.
Instead, Girardi rode the relievers he could trust. Robertson, one of three remaining members of the 2009 World Series-winning team (along with Gardner and C. C. Sabathia), had never thrown more than two innings in a major-league game until earlier this month.
Kahnle, whose command has been shaky at times, had an anxious moment when Mauer lifted a 100-mile-per-hour fastball down the left-field line with two runners on and two out in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading by 7-4. But Gardner drifted over to catch the ball in front of the wall.
“A lot of times when I see a fly ball, I always think it’s gone,” Kahnle said. “But to be honest, I thought I made a good pitch.”
The biggest outs, though, may have come from Green, whose strikeouts of Buxton and Castro kept the Yankees within distance. Green was asked what he was thinking walking off the mound.
“Relief, honestly,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Relief quickly turned to elation in the Yankees dugout. In the bottom of the first, Gardner drew a leadoff walk, Judge poked a 3-2 slider to center field for a single and, after Gary Sanchez popped out, Gregorius turned on a full-count fastball from Twins starter Ervin Santana and hit it into the right-field bleachers to tie the score at 3-3.
Gardner put the Yankees ahead, 4-3, an inning later when he lined a fastball into the second deck in right field. The Twins got even in the third when, with Green tiring, they loaded the bases with one out, and Buxton’s groundout against Robertson brought home Polanco.
The Yankees took a 5-4 lead in the third when Greg Bird stroked a single to right, driving in Sanchez. Judge made it 7-4 in the fourth by lashing a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers. The Yankees added their final run in the seventh when Aaron Hicks drew a two-out, bases-loaded walk from Alan Busenitz.
If Girardi had a number of tough decisions to make with his lineup — he used Hicks in center field, Jacoby Ellsbury at designated hitter and Bird at first base, leaving Chase Headley and Matt Holliday on the bench — choosing a starting pitcher was not one of them.
Severino, although he is 23 and was pitching in his first full major-league season, had clearly established himself as the Yankees’ ace, allowing one earned run or less in 10 of his 14 starts after the All-Star Game break.
“We have a rookie going out there, but when I look at Sevy, he’s handled everything,” Girardi said of Severino. “His best month was September, when it mattered most. His best half was his second half, to me, when it mattered the most.”
But he was far from his best on Tuesday. When the Twins were swept two weeks ago in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, about the one positive morsel they took away from it was knocking Severino out of the series finale after three innings.
“A lot of us saw him really well,” Dozier said after that game. “The kid’s got really good stuff, but I think we were very disciplined early on as far as making him throw strikes.”
On Tuesday night, Dozier took a 99-m.p.h. fastball for a strike on the first pitch of the game, then watched Severino deliver three consecutive balls. Dozier drove the next pitch — a chest-high 99-m.p.h. fastball — high and deep to left, landing just over the wall in left-center field.
Yankee Stadium, which had been rocking, fell silent. The Twins’ bats did not.
After Mauer fouled out, Polanco walked and Eddie Rosario lined a 1-1 slider just over the wall in right and suddenly — and stunningly — the Twins were ahead, 3-0.
When Eduardo Escobar lined a single to center, the stunned silence turned to vigorous boos, and when Max Kepler followed with a double into the right-field corner, Severino was done.
The Yankees, as it turned out, were not.