Having lost the World Series for the second time in three years the previous season, the Yankees entered the 2004 campaign with a revamped roster that included slugger Gary Sheffield, reigning A.L. MVP Alex Rodriguez, and pitchers Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown, and Javier Vazquez. In spite of the extensive changes they made during the offseason, the Yankees finished the year with the exact same 101-61 record they compiled one year earlier. Their league-leading mark placed them three games ahead of the second-place Red Sox in the A.L. East, giving the Yankees their seventh consecutive division title.
New York’s offense remained one of the best in baseball. The Yankees placed second in the American League with 897 runs scored, and they finished tied for the league lead with 242 home runs. Hideki Matsui hit 31 home runs, drove in 108 runs, scored 109 others, and led the team with a .298 batting average. Bernie Williams hit 22 home runs and scored 105 runs. Derek Jeter homered 23 times, scored 111 runs, batted .292, stole 23 bases, and led the club with 44 doubles. Meanwhile, newcomers Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield both posted big offensive numbers. Rodriguez hit 36 home runs, knocked in 106 runs, scored 112 others, and batted .286. Sheffield batted .290, tied A-Rod for the club lead with 36 homers, and placed among the league leaders with 121 runs batted in and 117 runs scored, en route to earning a second-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.
While New York’s offense remained potent, the Yankees entered the postseason with a suspect pitching staff. Without a true staff ace, New York surrendered 808 runs to the opposition during the regular season, finishing seventh in the league with a team ERA of 4.69. Not one of the starters posted an ERA below 4.00. Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber led the staff with 14 wins apiece. Still, the Yankee bullpen featured the sport’s premier reliever in Mariano Rivera, who placed third in the Cy Young voting and ninth in the MVP balloting by compiling a 1.94 ERA and leading the league with 53 saves.
Awaiting the Yankees in the ALDS for the second straight year were the Minnesota Twins, who captured their second consecutive A.L. Central title by finishing nine games ahead of the second-place Chicago White Sox, with a record of 92-70. Although the Yankees again entered their postseason matchup with Minnesota as a prohibitive favorite, the Twins were thought to have a fighting chance due to their superior pitching. New York clearly had a far more potent offense than Minnesota. The Yankees scored 117 more runs (897 to 780), hit 51 more home runs (242 to 191), and compiled a significantly higher team on-base percentage (.353 to .332). But, while the Yankees’ team ERA of 4.69 placed them just seventh in the league rankings, Minnesota led the American League with a mark of 4.03. The Twins had the American League’s best pitcher in Johan Santana, who finished 20-6, with a league-leading 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, en route to capturing league Cy Young honors. Minnesota also had solid starters in Brad Radke and Carlos Silva, who combined to win 25 games over the course of the season. Closer Joe Nathan also developed into one of the junior circuit’s top relievers during the campaign, compiling a 1.62 ERA and 44 saves. Still, the Twins entered their postseason matchup with the Yankees knowing that Johan Santana likely had to win both his starts if they had any hope of advancing to the next round.
Santana gave the Twins exactly what they needed in Game One, keeping the Yankees off the scoreboard over the first seven innings, before turning the ball over to the Minnesota bullpen, which shut out New York over the final two frames. Mike Mussina also pitched extremely well for the Yankees, allowing Minnesota to cross the plate just twice in his seven innings of work. But an RBI-single by Shannon Stewart in the top of the third and a solo home run by Jacque Jones in the sixth inning made a 2-0 loser out of Mussina and the Yankees.
Game Two in New York eventually turned into a battle of the bullpens after starters Brad Radke and Jon Lieber both exited the contest in the seventh inning with the Yankees holding a 5-3 lead. Home runs by Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, and Alex Rodriguez put New York on top until the Twins tied the score at 5-5 in the top of the eighth inning on RBI-hits by Justin Morneau and Corey Koskie off Mariano Rivera. Neither team scored again until Torii Hunter gave Minnesota a 7-6 lead in the top of the 12th inning with a solo home run off Tanyon Sturtze. The Yankees, though, countered with two runs of their own in the bottom of the frame on an RBI-double by Alex Rodriguez and a game-winning sacrifice fly by Hideki Matsui. The 8-7 victory tied the series at a game apiece, with the next two contests scheduled to be played in Minnesota.
A home run by Jacque Jones in the bottom of the first inning gave Minnesota an early 1-0 lead in Game Three. However, that turned out to be the only run Kevin Brown surrendered to the Twins in his six innings of work. Meanwhile, the Yankees pounded Carlos Silva for six runs on 10 hits over the first five innings, with Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui both delivering home runs. New York’s bullpen surrendered three meaningless runs to Minnesota in the bottom of the ninth inning that made the final score a bit more respectable. But the Yankees posted a convincing 8-4 victory that gave them a two-games-to-one lead in the series.
Hoping to stave off elimination, the Twins went to their ace, Johan Santana, on only three days’ rest in Game Four. A weary Santana did his very best, holding the Yankees to one run on five hits over the first five innings, as Minnesota built a 5-1 lead. However, the Yankees tied the score with four runs in the top of the eighth inning against the Twins’ bullpen. Ruben Sierra delivered the big blow, hitting a game-tying three-run homer off Juan Rincon. The contest remained knotted at 5-5 until the top of the 11th inning, when the Yankees scored the winning run on a wild pitch by Kyle Lohse. Mariano Rivera worked two perfect innings to pick up the series-clinching win.