ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Yankees

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Two full weeks after the Yankees clinched their spot in the playoffs, the Twins and Tigers played a 12-inning thriller yesterday to decide the AL Central.
Thirteen pitchers were used, 391 pitches were thrown, and when the Twins emerged victorious they had less than 20 hours to celebrate in front of a record crowd at the not-dead-yet Metrodome, get to the airport, fly from Minneapolis to New York, presumably get some sleep, and then be at Yankee Stadium for the first pitch of the ALDS tonight.
Congratulations on the division title. Hope you enjoyed the celebration. Now try beating this 103-win powerhouse with three times your payroll.
Before becoming the biggest underdogs of the playoffs the Twins trailed the Tigers by seven games on September 6 and remained three games behind with just four games to play, which is a deficit that no team in baseball history has come back from. Until now. Minnesota went 31-14 down the stretch, including 17-4 after losing Justin Morneau to a season-ending back injury, and scratched out a one-game playoff win after falling 1-0 to the White Sox in the same situation last year.
Their reward? A late-night flight to New York for a matchup against baseball’s most dominant team. Oh, and just in case the above scenario isn’t daunting enough the Twins are 16-45 against the Yankees under manager Ron Gardenhire, including 0-7 this season, and New York is responsible for two of their last three playoff exits. This is David versus Goliath, if Goliath wore pinstripes and David was tired from dousing himself with champagne the night before, but fortunately for the Twins their slingshot is still warm.
Rotations

GAME 1:
CC Sabathia         230 IP    7.7 SO/9    2.6 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Brian Duensing       84 IP    5.7 SO/9    3.3 BB/9    45.5 GB%    4.97 xFIP
GAME 2:
A.J. Burnett        207 IP    9.5 SO/9    4.2 BB/9    42.8 GB%    4.50 xFIP
Nick Blackburn      206 IP    4.3 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    45.8 GB%    4.78 xFIP
GAME 3:
Andy Pettitte       195 IP    6.8 SO/9    3.5 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Carl Pavano         199 IP    6.6 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    44.5 GB%    4.24 xFIP
GAME 4:
CC Sabathia         230 IP    7.7 SO/9    2.6 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Scott Baker         200 IP    7.3 SO/9    2.2 BB/9    33.9 GB%    4.39 xFIP
GAME 5:
A.J. Burnett        207 IP    9.5 SO/9    4.2 BB/9    42.8 GB%    4.50 xFIP
Nick Blackburn      206 IP    4.3 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    45.8 GB%    4.78 xFIP



* xFIP stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which is generally a better measure of pitcher performance than ERA. GB% is ground-ball percentage.
Minnesota had to rebuild its rotation on the fly thanks to Francisco Liriano falling apart and injuries to Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins, and the revised front four of Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and Brian Duensing went 17-9 with a 3.76 ERA over the final 45 games of the season. Ideally the Twins would start Baker in Game 1, but since he was needed in yesterday’s one-game playoff they’ll go with the 26-year-old rookie Duensing against CC Sabathia.
Duensing was 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA in 84 innings split between the rotation and bullpen, but his secondary numbers weren’t nearly as impressive, his stuff is mediocre, and he went 20-22 with a 4.00 ERA at Triple-A before making his big-league debut this year. Sabathia versus Duensing is the biggest mismatch of a lopsided series, but the Yankees also hold smaller edges in each of the other four games and it’s possible that the Twins’ best starter won’t ever take the mound.
Sabathia struggled in his final start, but went 11-2 with a 2.74 ERA after the All-Star break and is 13-8 with a 3.05 ERA lifetime against the Twins, including seven innings of one-run ball in July. Minnesota will likely need to win two of the other three matchups, because it’s awfully difficult to envision the Twins beating Carsten Charles twice. One matchup that could favor the Twins is the Blackburn-Burnett combo, because Blackburn has repeatedly come up big in key starts and Burnett has been mediocre all season.
Lineups
New York led all of baseball in hits, homers, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage on the way to scoring an MLB-high 915 runs, which is 32 more than any other team and 145 more than the league average. Eight of the nine regulars in the lineup posted an OPS above .800, and even the Melky Cabrera-Brett Gardner platoon in center field managed above-average production. Minnesota’s fly ball-heavy pitching staff will be in constant danger as seven Yankees smacked at least 20 homers.
No team can match the Yankees when it comes to lineup depth and offensive firepower, but the Twins were plenty good at scoring runs themselves, ranking fourth in the league with 816. Joe Mauer had one of the greatest seasons of all time for a catcher, hitting .365/.444/.587 with 28 homers for his third batting title in four seasons, and Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Denard Span were also among the league’s top bats.
Morneau’s injury robs Minnesota of a fifth big-time threat, but Cuddyer hit .333 with nine homers and 24 RBIs in 21 games after replacing him at first base and guys like Delmon Young, Orlando Cabrera, and Matt Tolbert caught fire down the stretch after being easy outs for most of the season. They’re certainly not going to out-slug the Yankees, but the Twins have plenty of pop and scored 6.3 runs per game during the season-ending 17-4 stretch.
Bullpens
Twins relievers had a 3.88 ERA in 512 innings and Yankees relievers had a 3.91 ERA in 515 innings, but bullpen depth ceases being a big factor once the playoffs begin. In other words, no more R.A. Dickey and Edwar Ramirez. Instead playoff bullpens are all about closers and their primary setup men, which means Mariano Rivera, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain for New York and Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch for Minnesota. No pitcher can match Rivera’s postseason success, but Nathan is right there with him when it comes to regular-season dominance since becoming a closer in 2004:

             IP      ERA     WHIP      SV      SV%
Rivera      440     1.90     0.94     243     93.1
Nathan      419     1.87     0.93     246     90.8



Amazingly close, as Rivera and Nathan have been the two best closers in baseball during that time. However, while the Twins feature a solid but unspectacular setup trio of Guerrier, Rauch, and Jose Mijares the Yankees potentially have two shutdown relievers in front of Rivera. Hughes has been overpowering since moving to the bullpen, going 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 51 innings, and while a question mark Chamberlain has a 1.50 ERA in 50 career relief appearances.
Overrated Angle: Pavano versus his former teammates
Yes, the Yankees and their fans still hold a grudge against Pavano, who made a grand total of 26 starts in four injury-filled seasons in New York and earned nearly $5 million per win. However, he’s been healthy and productive this season while making a career-high 33 starts, going 14-9 with a 4.67 ERA since a rough April. Plus, for all the drama of Pavano facing New York in a playoff series he’s already pitched against the Yankees twice this season, allowing four runs over 13.1 innings in a pair of no-decisions.
Underrated Angle: Burnett over Pettitte in Game 2
Because of the incredibly drawn-out ALDS schedule the first two starters will each pitch twice. Sabathia was a no-brainer atop the rotation, but Burnett over Pettitte in Game 2 is somewhat curious. Burnett was 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA and Pettitte was 14-8 with a 4.16 ERA, so they had similar seasons, but Pettitte is a tougher matchup for the Twins given that three of their four best hitters are left-handed. Beyond that, manager Joe Girardi announced that Jose Molina will serve as Burnett’s personal catcher, so Jorge Posada’s bat will be on the bench 40 percent of the time.
Prediction
Minnesota has all the momentum in the world, but history has shown that doesn’t mean a whole lot once the playoffs begin and New York is simply a superior team with the benefit of rest and homefield advantage. Yankees in four.

Video: Mike Napoli face-plants into third base after a triple

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.19.56 AM
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Indians DH/1B Mike Napoli has hit ten triples in his 11-year big league career, so sliding into third base after a long run is not something with which he has tons of experience. As such, the slide — and I use that term in the loosest sense possible — he executed — and I use that term as loosely as possible too — when he hit a triple last night against the White Sox was somewhat unconventional.

The best part, though, was that he didn’t even need to slide as the throw from the outfield was delayed due to the outfielder not getting a great handle on the ball and the relay throw which never came was dropped by the infielder. He could’ve gone in standing up.

Thank God he didn’t, though, because this was too good:

Matt Harvey unfairly slammed for snubbing the press

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets looks on after allowing a two run home run by Daniel Murphy #20 of the Washington Nationals (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Matt Harvey had yet another nightmare of a game last night in what has become a nightmare of a season for him. He’s been terrible all year, particularly terrible in his past three starts and there are legitimate questions about whether he’s hurt, should be shut down or should be sent down to the minors. It’s not hyperbole to say that his career is at a crossroads right now. He may return to form, as many struggling pitchers do, but for those who don’t, this is what it looks like as things skid out of control for good.

In light of that — in light of the fact that he’s worked his entire life to make the big leagues and now that’s all in jeopardy — it may be understandable if Harvey is at a loss for words. If he doesn’t have any answers about his current plight. If, like most of us when we face a personal or professional crisis, he needs to gather himself in order to make sense of it all.

Matt Harvey is a baseball player, though, and baseball players don’t get that luxury. No, when they face a crisis, they’re expected to talk to reporters about it and, if they don’t, they can expect 800-1,000 angry, critical words thrown at them. Mike Vaccaro from the New York Post throws his angry words this morning:

The joke, of course, is that any of this would be remotely surprising by now. The Mets have abided by the Harvey Rules from Day 1, have tread lightly around him, have allowed him the kind of leeway and latitude that should never be afforded someone with 75 career starts, no matter how promising he used to be.

So why wouldn’t he duck and run now?

Why wouldn’t he leave it for his manager and his teammates to answer for him, to speak on his behalf, after another humbling bell-ringing at the hands of the Nationals, another night when he was less Dark Knight than Pale Pawn, another night when he couldn’t recapture even a fraction of the old magic?

It gets no better from there on. The bile is palpable as Vaccaro catalogs all of Harvey’s foibles of the past three or four years, real or imagined, and lets Harvey have it, all because he left the clubhouse before talking to the media.

To be clear, there is a tiny seed of a point to criticism of a player who doesn’t speak to the press. I’ve written about this in the past, and players and members of the media have talked about it before. That seed: when someone ducks the press, it puts pressure on their teammates to answer for them and they don’t appreciate that too much. That situation is largely inapplicable here, however, and doesn’t defend this vile column, for a couple of reasons.

One obvious reason is that Vaccaro does not appear to be concerned with Harvey’s relationship with his teammates in this column. There are no quotes from anyone about Harvey other than the manager, who would be asked about his starter’s struggles anyway. There is a generic reference to teammates having to answer for someone else, but no suggestion here that Mets players were irked about it last night.

Rather, the ire in this piece was a long time coming. The press has been eager to put the knife in Harvey for years and there is something close to glee spinning off of every word here based on old transgressions, not awkwardness from last night or even a pattern of Harvey ducking the press, which he has not done. If there is any doubt about that:

Maybe that was Vaccaro who said that, maybe it was another columnist, but the notion that these sorts of anti-player screeds are solely about poor teammates who are left to answer for their absent friends is a convenient lie. The press, especially the New York press, likes to torch certain guys and this is a case in which a columnist is gleefully torching a guy with his snub of the press merely being a convenient pretext.

Context matters too. It’d be one thing if Harvey was having a little snit last night over a bad performance and just peaced out of the clubhouse and left others holding the bag. That’s not what happened. What’s happening is a guy’s livelihood and identity flashing before his eyes. A pitcher suddenly losing it and having no idea why or how to arrest his slide. That there is zero empathy for that — zero understanding that a guy may not know what to say or how to say it when he’s asked about it — is pretty sad. I’m sure most Mets players, even ones who may not like Harvey, have been in that situation before and are willing to give him more leeway than this acidic column would suggest. I’m sure they’re worried about their teammate on some level and are just as baffled and worried as he is.

Should Matt Harvey talk to the press? Probably. MLB and its clubs want players to do that and it’s the custom. If a player routinely ducks this responsibility or if he does so because he’d rather make it to the nightclub than be there for his ballclub, yes, he should be criticized. But that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is a press corps that has jumped on Matt Harvey for every little thing, however benign it may have been — a press corps which even turned a scary medical moment he experienced into the basis for jokes — jumping on him once again.

The glee with which they’re doing it is pretty telling. Far more telling than a man not wanting to talk to that same press corps mere hours after a personal and professional nightmare grew even darker.

Yasiel Puig benched after he failed to run hard out of the box

Yasiel Puig
Associated Press
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On Sunday Yasiel Puig made a pretty significant base running blunder, failing to advance to third base on an bunt which, in turn, led to the Dodgers playing eight extra innings of baseball. Last night the Dodgers right fielder made another mental mistake, also involving lackadaisical base running, and it bought him a seat on the pine.

Puig hit a deep fly to right in the sixth inning. He clearly thought he got all of it and began slowly walking to first base out of the box. The ball didn’t go out, however. It hit the wall. For anyone showing even a bit of hustle that would’ve been a double but Puig’s lack of effort held him to a single. He would come around to score — ironically because of hustle on the base paths, reaching home from second on a headfirst slide — but it was too little too late for manager Dave Roberts who was upset at the earlier loafing and removed Puig from the game.

Roberts after the game:

“He needed to be on second base. We talk about playing the game the right way.”

Puig:

“I thought it was a home run, and then I didn’t run out the ball, obviously. It was [Roberts’] decision to take me out of the game. It was a decision well made, because all my teammates are out on the field working hard, and I should have run out that ball.”

Those are the right words to say in that situation, but it’s a situation that shouldn’t come up and words that should go without saying. Especially in a year where Puig has tried to recast himself as a hard worker. And especially in a year in which he’s been struggling at the plate overall.

Here’s Puig after the game:

Here’s Roberts:

Somewhere, Don Mattingly is nodding.

 

And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 24:  Leonys Martin #12 of the Seattle Mariners reacts after hitting a two-run, walk-off homer to defeat the Oakland Athletics 6-5 at Safeco Field on May 24, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rays 4, Marlins 3: The Rays won and guys did cool things and all of that but my favorite part of the game was how Kevin Cash brought in a lefty to face Giancarlo Stanton, who promptly homered off of him. Obviously Stanton has been struggling and obviously it didn’t matter to the outcome of the game but I do want to know what the thought process is to “I’m going to bring in a lefty to face the most powerful right handed hitter in baseball in this spot.”

Cubs 12, Cardinals 3: Jason Hammel allowed one run while pitching into the eighth and had a two-run double in the six-run first inning as Chicago ends a three-game losing streak. Michael Wacha gave up eight runs in four innings and has lost five consecutive decisions. Which isn’t really good.

Yankees 6, Blue Jays 0: The Yankees are back to .500 for the first time since April 14, which was the eighth game of the season. Carlos Beltran homered and drove in two and Nathan Eovaldi tossed six shutout innings. Only two hits in the whole game for the Blue Jays, who are near the bottom in the AL for runs per game this year. Last year they ran away with the Best Offensive Team in Baseball title. So yeah, there’s that.

Nationals 7, Mets 4: Yeah, so the Matt Harvey situation is getting pretty dire. The Mets’ erstwhile ace was lit up for five runs on eight hits in five innings. One of those hits was a Daniel Murphy homer. Two others were gopher balls given up to Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg struck out 11 in six and two-thirds. Terry Collins on Harvey:

“We’ve got to think what’s not just best for Matt, but what’s best for us moving forward at the moment. There are a lot of things to consider. We’re not going to make any rash judgments tonight. We’re going to sleep on it.”

Sounds like someone has either a DL stint or a trip to Las Vegas in his future.

Pirates 12, Diamondbacks 1: Gregory Polanco had three hits including a three-run homer and drove in five. Dbacks starter Shelby Miller was lit up for six runs on eight hits in five innings and saw his ERA climb above seven. Even Matt Harvey looks at that and goes “damn.” Pittsburgh reliever Arquimedes Caminero was ejected in the eighth after hitting a pair of batters in the head, one of whom — Jean Segura — was sent to the hospital with concussion symptoms. Dude seems to have no idea where the ball is going and has no business pitching right now.

Red Sox 8, Rockies 3: Jackie Bradley Jr. extends his hitting streak to 28 games or, as we say in the business, .5 DiMaggios. OK, we don’t say that in the business. I’m not even sure what “the business” is, actually. I sit on a couch with my cats all day. Pretty good business but I’m not sure if it’s representative of a professional class into which I can even plausibly shoehorn myself. David Price won his seventh game, allowing three runs over seven innings. David Ortiz went 2-for-4 and drove in four. No that does not entitle you to ask him if he is going to reconsider his decision to retire.

Tigers 3, Phillies 1: Justin Verlander struck out ten over eight shutout innings. Francisco Rodriguez notched his 400th career save. Miguel Cabrera stayed hot, driving in two. When your ace, your closer and your slugger are the three dudes who get mentioned in a short game description, it’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a winning baseball game.

Brewers 2, Braves 1Scooter Gennett hit a tiebreaking single in the eighth to put the Brewers over. Julio Teheran struck out 12 while allowing one run in seven innings but got the no-decision and his team lost because such is the hellscape that is the Atlanta Braves 2016 season. For what it’s worth, he’s got a 0.89 ERA over his last six starts while striking out 42. He’s 1-2 in that span.

Rangers 4, Angels 1: Martin Perez tossed six shutout innings and Nomar Mazara hit a two-run homer in the sixth. The Rangers got an insurance run when Mazara was caught stealing and stayed in the rundown long enough to let another runner score, so give him an assist or something.

Indians 6, White Sox 2: Chris Sale lost. I repeat: Chris Sale lost a baseball game. The Indians got to him for six runs in three and a third innings, in fact, which seems damn nigh impossible this year, but box scores don’t lie. Heck, Sale had allowed only six runs in his previous five starts combined. Josh Tomlin, meanwhile, remains undefeated after tossing eight innings and allowing two runs.

Royals 7, Twins 4Salvador Perez stayed hot, hittting a two-run homer, and Lorenzo Cain had four hits and two RBI. Wade Davis got the save despite loading the bases with nobody out in the ninth. That’s an interesting way to do things. Maybe he’s just lacking excitement in his life and is looking for ways to make the adrenaline surge.

Astros 3, Orioles 2: Carlos Correa hit a walkoff single in the 13th, ending the Astros’ four-game losing streak. It was set up by Tony Kemp hitting a leadoff triple over Adam Jones‘ head. Astros pitchers struck out 19 Orioles batters. Sixteen of those strikeouts came from the Houston bullpen, which didn’t enter the game until there were two outs in the sixth inning.

Giants 8, Padres 2: The Warriors are bringing everyone in the Bay Area down but at least they still have the Giants. Brandon Crawford drove in four runs and Jarrett Parker homered as the Giants win their fourth in a row and 12th of 13. The Padres have lost all eight meetings with the Giants this year.

Mariners 6, Athletics 5: The Mariners were down 5-2 after the A’s batted in the eighth inning but then they rallied for four over the next two frames, topped off with a Leonys Martin two-run walkoff homer. Robinson Cano hit a two-run homer of his own in the eighth. Brutal loss for the A’s.

Dodgers 8, Reds 2: Nine losses in a row for the Reds who continue to be a great opponent for struggling contenders to face. Eight straight for the Dodgers over the Reds. Mike Bolsinger got the win after allowing two runs in a little under six innings. Your Aunt Tilly could get a win against the Reds right now, even if she was having trouble locating her offspeed stuff.