by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
October 7, 2009
The Minnesota twins defeated the Detroit Tigers 6-5 in 12 innings to become the AL Central champions Tuesday night. They also became the fifth home team to win a tiebreaker playoff out of six tiebreaker playoffs in the Wild Card era, justifying the rule change that altered home field determination from a coin flip to head-to-head record.
But the Twins aren't thinking as much about the coin flip that robbed them of a playoff berth in 2008 as much as they are considering how in the heck they are going to beat the heavily-favored New York Yankees in a best-of-five series. The Yankees won 16 more games and scored 98 more runs than the Twins have, despite having played in one fewer game. The Twins have momentum, but will that be enough to orchestrate an upset?
Records - Twins 87-76, Yankees 103-59
Runs Scored - Twins 817 (4th), Yankees 915 (1st)
Runs Allowed - Twins 765 (10th), Yankees 753 (5th)
We saw very similar mismatches in 2003 and 2004. The Twins, winners of a weak AL Central Division both seasons, pitted themselves against the Yankees, who won 101 games both years in a more competitive division. The Yankees took both ALDS series 3-1. While neither of those overall outcomes were surprising, the way they transpired defied expectations. Minnesota won the opening game in Yankee Stadium both times before going a combined 0-4 at the HHH Metrodome, where they traditionally hold a huge advantage over their foes.
The Twins won't win game one this year. Johan Santana started both of those game one wins against the Yankees. Some people will argue that the Twins are coming in with momentum, having won five straight games and 17 of their last 21. They'll go on to say that the Yankees have been coasting for the past month or so and are either rusty or have forgotten how to play games that matter.
I will counter with a two-word argument: Brian Duensing. Sure, the 26-year old rookie has gone 5-1 with a 2.73 ERA as a starter, but his minor league numbers are underwhelming and his peripherals are pathetic. He doesn't strike batters out, so he is facing one of the best offenses in baseball in a park that increases home run output by about 25%. In short, he's no Santana.
The Yankees have gone 36-18 (.667) against southpaws this season and 57-24 (.704) at home. Oh, and they will send arguably the best pitcher in baseball over the past our seasons to the hill. C.C. Sabathia has a 3.08 ERA over 28 career starts against the Twins and a 2.39 ERA in 11 starts against them away from the Metrodome. Finally, the Twins have a losing record both on the road and against left-handers this year. Most of the teams they faced on the road were a lot worse than the Yankees and most of the southpaws they faced were a lot worse than Sabathia.
Basically, the fact that the Twins had to scrape and claw their way into the postseason has forced them to send a grossly unqualified game one starter into an already unfavorable matchup. There is no such thing as a sure win in baseball, but this is about as close as it gets.
Joe Girardi has shrewdly gone with a three-man rotation, as Joba Chamberlain has been embarrassing over the final two months of the regular season and really hasn't proven that he is a quality starter at this stage in his career. It was also beneficial to go with A.J. Burnett in game two and Andy Pettite in game 3. Burnett has a 3.51 home ERA but a 4.59 road ERA, while Pettitte performs better away from New Yankee Stadium (4.59/3.71).
For some reason, Girardi created a stir by announcing that A.J. Burnett works better with Jose Molina than he does with Jorge Posada. No kidding - so does every other pitcher. Jose Molina is one of the best defensive catchers in the game while Posada has always been among the worst. What will shock the New York world next, when Girardi announces that the Yankees score more runs when with Alex Rodriguez manning third base than they do when Ramiro Pena is at the hot corner?
Anyway, it says something when that is the biggest concern on the minds of Yankees fans, whereas Twins fans have to wonder who in the heck is going to pitch beyond game one of this series. It looks like Nick Blackburn in game 2, Kevin Slowey in game 3, and Carl Pavano in game 4, none of whom strikes fear into the hearts of others.
Blackburn has thrown well lately, notching a 3.34 ERA over his final nine starts of the regular season. During that stretch, however, he faced the Royals, Indians, and White Sox twice each, plus the Tigers, A's, and Orioles. Facing the Yankees' lineup will be a different challenge altogether for the man who led the majors with 240 hits allowed and averaged fewer than one strikeout every other inning.
Scott Baker does have an impressive 15-9 record and 3.4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On one hand, the Twins are sorry that he only gets to pitch once in this series. On the other, they are fortunate that he does not need to pitch in New Yankee Stadium, as his 28 home runs allowed this year are just one off the non-Guthrie AL lead. Carl Pavano has had a surprising strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.8:1 this season, but you still generally don't want the pitcher who tied Braden Looper for the most earned runs allowed in baseball to start for you in the postseason.
It surprised me to learn that the Twins actually have a slightly better relief ERA than the Yankees do, 3.87 to 3.91. But the real interesting bullpen matchup comes between the two best closers over the past four years in Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera. The difference, of course, is that Rivera has been at this for 14 years and may well be the most dominant postseason pitcher of all time. Frankly, if you are a closer and your name is not Hoffman or Rivera, the wheels can come off at any time. Ask Brad Lidge, Francisco Cordero, or Armando Benitez. Nathan's success over the past six years does not guarantee that he won't implode this week, particularly given that he turns 35 in November.
Conversely, the Twins have a very young lineup, with only shortstop Orlando Cabrera and utility man Nick Punto over 30 years old among the position players on their postseason roster. The youth is great, because it leads you to believe that they will not wear down late in the year, and their record over the past three weeks certainly supports that hypothesis. However, it does little to mask the fact that beyond Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer, there isn't a single threat in the Twins' lineup.
Meanwhile, the Yankee lineup is the deepest in baseball after the Angels'. They have seven players with 22 or more home runs, seven with more than 80 RBI, and eight with an OPS over .850. Derek Jeter only had 18 homers and 66 RBI, but stole 30 bases, scored 107 runs, and batted .334. Eric Hinske has been a phenomenal pinch-hitter this year, batting .300 with three doubles and seven walks in that role. In a key situation in which the only two possible lineup weaknesses - Jose Molina or the centerfielder - is due to hit, Hinske can step in and pose a threat. As an aside, not enough has been made of the fact that Alex Rodriguez has come back to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs with a .402 OBP after having missed all of April and batting .207 in June. He, not Mark Teixeira, is the biggest threat in the New York lineup right now.
The middle relief of both clubs is weak, but the Yankees have starters who can go deep into games and a dominant closer who can still provide two innings if needed. They likely will not need to rely upon sub-par pitchers in a key situation. The Twins are coming off a 12-inning game, half of which was pitched by their bullpen. They should be happy to get five innings from any of their starters given the way the Yankees hit and work the count. Additionally, Joe Nathan almost never works more than a three-out save. People like Jesse "The Crain" Heenan and Bob Keppel could be facing Jeter, A-Rod, or Teixeira with the game on the line. That is not a recipe for success.
Ron Gardenhire may be the best manager in baseball right now and could possibly steal a game from the Evil Empire. But don't count on it.
Prediction: Yankees in Three
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.