On Wednesday, the real season begins: the postseason, that is. The Bombers will travel to Minneapolis to take on the Twins; first pitch is scheduled for 8:07 ET.
I realize many of you are still wondering what happened over the weekend, when the Yanks managed to lose the division (in what may be the craziest final weekend in memory) and haven’t had a chance yet to really focus on the task at hand. Most of you are probably still trying to figure out what a “Twins” might be.
The Twins finished the regular season 94-68 and won the AL Central by a very comfortable 6 games over the White Sox. Once again, Ron Gardenhire‘s crew of unknowns and cast-off’s won the division, even though most prognosticators had them pegged for no better than third place at the start of the year. During the season, the Yankees won the season series, 4-2, but these aren’t the same Twins that faced the Yankees in May. Here’s a quick breakdown on the team that will face off the with the Bombers.
Just like their better known opponents, the Twins face a conundrum regarding their starting rotation. Without a doubt, Francisco Liriano (14-10, 1.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) will get the ball in game 1, but after that it’s a crapshoot. Will game 2 go to Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) or Scott Baker (12-9, 4.49 ERA, 1.34 WHIP)? The smart money is on Pavano for several reasons: one, he pitched much better at home than on the road this year and two, the last thing Gardenhire seems likely to want is to pitch Pavano in the first game at Yankee Stadium. That makes Baker the probable starter in game 3 – if Duensing can’t get two starts, his best value to the Twins is as the ace left out of the pen. The big question for the Twins, like the Yanks, is do they go with a 3- or 4-man rotation? If they opt for a four man staff, expect game 4 to go to Kevin Slowey (13-6, 4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP). In short, this is a righty-heavy staff facing a Yankee line-up that mauls right-handers (.796 team OPS and 118 OPS+). The Twins bullpen looks to get plenty of work in games not started by Liriano. Edge: Yankees
The Twins are pretty formidable if they have a lead going into the 8th inning, with the duo of set up man Jon Rauch (3-1, 21 SV, 1.30 WHIP) and closer Matt Capps (2-0, 16 SV, 1.18 WHIP). Capps was acquired in a deadline deal with the Senators, where he posted 26 SV and a 1.30 WHIP; the 42 combined saves are the principle reason the Twins made the move. Duensing was effective out of the pen before finding himself in the rotation, posting a 1.80 ERA and holding lefty-hitters to a .162 average. The Twins also figure to lean heavily on Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, with Jose Merias being the other left-handed option in the ‘pen. Overall, the pen is the strength of this Twins team. Then again, it was the strength of last year’s team, too. Edge: Twins
The Twins lost Justin Morneau mid-way through the season and with him gone, the Twins lost both their starting first baseman and premier power threat. As a team, they only have four players who reached double figures in home runs and nobody hit more than 25. Despite that, they still scored 781 runs – good for fifth in the American League. This is a team that gets by on creating rallies from doubles and smart baserunning. Yankee catchers look to catch a breather, as the Twins were last in steals and attempted steals this season, averaging one attempt every two games. The attack is anchored by reigning MVP C Joe Mauer (.327, 9 HR, 75 RBI), back-from-the-dead DH Jim Thome (.283, 25, 59) and always steady RF Jason Kubel (.249, 21, 92). Perhaps their most intriguing player is LF Delmon Young. After years of waiting for Young to turn his talent into a solid season, this seems to have been his breakout year (.298, 21, 112) – even if nobody outside of the Twin Cities noticed. The question surrounding Young is, will he continue to produce in the postseason or revert to his more pedestrian career numbers (career OPS .704)? Edge: Yankees
Defensively, the Twins are once again a solid – if unspectacular – team. They ranked 2nd in the AL in fielding percentage, but overall, they’re range is not exceptional. In other words, they make the plays on the balls they get to – they just don’t get to as many balls as you would expect from a top-flight defense. This is a team that needs to play sound fundamentals – because they lack the ability to overcome errors with the great play (and the pitching staff, other than Liriano, lacks the ability to pick up their teammates with a strikeout). Edge: Yankees
Gardenhire is consistently recognized as one of the game’s best managers, and with good reason. Every season, he brings a small market, mid-budget team that project to somewhere around 85 wins, figures out a way to win an extra 5-10 games a year and delvers Minnesota to the post-season. Once they get there, the Twins tend to get sent back home. But it’s not the manager’s fault. Edge: Twins
The Twins are opening their first post-season at Target Field, which figures to be not really cold for Wednesday’s opener (forecast: 63 degrees at first pitch). The Twins learned their new park pretty quickly. Mauer may complain about the stadium robbing home runs with its dimensions, but the Twins were still 53-28 at home. The +12 differential between home and away wins is the largest spread for any of the eight playoff teams.
Once again, the Twins make the playoffs – and once again, they exit early with their hearts broken. On paper, they seem to match up well with the Yankees, and if this were a nine game series, the added depth in their rotation would probably be their greatest asset. But this is a five game series and the off days mean the Yanks don’t need to entrust a start to either AJ Burnett or Javier Vazquez. The Yankees superior front three and line-up depth should make this one Yankees in 4.