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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Joe Girardi, Yankees get a jump on Twins in pressure game

Twins starter Ervin Santana, whom the Yankees might

Twins starter Ervin Santana, whom the Yankees might see in the playoffs, ended up losing 2-1 on an Aaron Judge home run and a Todd Frazier sacrifice fly on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, at Yankee Stadium. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Twins definitely helped the narrative Monday night by starting Ervin Santana in the series opener, a decision that allowed everyone to label this late September clash a wild-card preview for the likely Oct. 3 matchup.

For one side, anyway. Joe Girardi didn’t exactly play along by tinkering with the Yankees’ rotation and giving the assignment to Jaime Garcia, a pitcher who isn’t expected to be on the postseason roster.

That figured to be to the Yankees’ advantage, keeping Luis Severino away from the Twins during this series with only two weeks to go. No point in letting the young Minnesotans get a free look at Girardi’s No. 1. We’re not sure how much a close-up view would help later on against Severino’s lethal weaponry, but better to surprise the Twins in a do-or-die playoff.

If that Oct. 3 night in the Bronx unfolds like Monday’s game did, however, it’s going to make for a nerve-wracking three hours for Girardi & Co., as well as a sold-out Stadium, because the Yankees barely squeezed out a 2-1 victory over the Twins.

And here’s why you can expect more anxiety in the wild-card forecast. As great as Severino has been, Garcia was fantastic Monday against the Twins — and the Yankees’ offense simply couldn’t break Santana, scratching him for only a pair of runs on Aaron Judge’s homer and Todd Frazier’s sacrifice fly. While we fully expect Severino to be his dominant self in the wild-card game, the Yankees could end up sweating out a rematch with Santana, who kept slipping free of serious trouble into the sixth.

Another troubling aspect of Monday’s preview was the disintegration of Dellin Betances, who had to be rescued with one out in the eighth inning by Aroldis Chapman. The only batter Betances retired was on a sacrifice bunt. The rest of his line was a hit-by-pitch and two walks to load the bases before Girardi waved for Chapman.

Remember what a huge deal it was last week when Girardi yanked Betances to summon Chapman for a four-out save? This wasn’t a playoff game, but Girardi already is in October mode, and asking Chapman for five outs was pushing the envelope.

On this night, Chapman came through. But the tightrope act, and desperate measures, are what makes the wild-card scenario so scary. For all the drama swirling around Garcia, due to Girardi’s quick hook Wednesday at Citi Field, he struck out nine of the first 13 hitters, allowing only Jorge Polanco’s leadoff double in the second.

Before the game, Girardi was asked repeatedly if there might be any lingering resentment between him and Garcia, considering that the manager removed him from his last start only one out from a victory. Girardi shrugged it off, adding that reporters would likely know of any rancor first because he doesn’t spend any time on social media.

“I don’t tweet,” Girardi said.

We don’t doubt it. And we also were 100 percent certain that Girardi wouldn’t hesitate to pull Garcia again the very millisecond he appeared to be in jeopardy. So Garcia kept him glued to the dugout rail the only way he could — by dispatching the Twins in rapid fashion. It was an impressive showing, especially against the team that traded him to the Yankees only six days after acquiring him from the Braves on July 24. It’s impossible to tell if that was a slight or not, because Garcia was essentially a tourist in the Twin Cities.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something that was so short-lived,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said.

The Yankees might be saying the same about their 2017 playoff run if they turn in a similar performance two weeks from now. This was shaping up to be a bonus year for the Twins, a team full of 20-something talent that still wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Even Molitor suggested before the game that this trip to the Bronx would be a learning experience for his kids, a chance to prep themselves for a crazier atmosphere next month.

To their credit, the Twins probably convinced themselves they can win two weeks from now at the Stadium. Maybe that’s a valuable lesson for the Yankees, too.

New York Sports