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.

Adrian Beltre may not return to the Rangers until June

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Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre is nursing a calf injury, an issue that plagued him starting early in spring training. At first, the hope was that he’d be ready by the regular season, then at some point in April, then at some point in May. According to MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan, however, even a May return is looking “murky.”

Manager Jeff Banister said, “It’s at the point where we didn’t necessarily see the progress results we thought we would see. We decided to take a step back and get him back to where the soreness and [swelling] is out of there. We weren’t progressing forward at the rate we wanted to.”

Fortunately for the Rangers, Joey Gallo has performed admirably in place of Beltre at third base. The 23-year-old has played solid defense while hitting .232/.361/.623 with seven home runs and 16 RBI in 83 plate appearances. Gallo will continue to man the hot corner until Beltre is healthy enough to return.

Beltre is sitting on 2,942 career hits. His reaching the 3,000-hit milestone was expected to be one of the highlights of the 2017 season.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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I’m taking the day off to go down to Kentucky to watch horses do horsey things (watch for me photobombing equestrian types on NBC Sports Network). Bill will be along later today and Ashley will be here this evening, but I can’t leave you without the recaps because that’s what I do.

Don’t do anything dumb while your mother and I are out. We’ve marked all the bottles. We’ll know if you’re lying to us.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 5, Giants 1: It was 1-1 until the 11th inning thanks to Julio Urias, making his 2017 big league debut, and the Dodgers’ bullpen and Matt Moore and the Giants’ bullpen takin’ care of business. The Dodgers got tired of it being close in the top of the 11th, however, beating up on Corey Gearrin, Steven Okert and Hunter Strickland for four runs. Andrew Toles knocked in the go-ahead run with a single. A sac fly, single and a bases-loaded walk finished the scoring. The Giants wouldn’t have even scored the one run if it wasn’t for the Dodgers throwing the ball around.

Nationals 16, Rockies 5: The Nats came into Colorado and scored 46 runs in four games. Which, damn. They put up 11 runs in the seventh inning here, with Bryce Harper hitting a three-run shot. Trea Turner hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and hit a double and two singles and driving in two here. Harper is hitting .418/.535/.823 with eight homers and 25 RBI. That’s a 59 homer, 184 RBI pace. I know Harper has a habit of putting up big Aprils and that injuries have derailed him in the past, but this is shaping up to be a really special year for this guy.

Cardinals 8, Blue Jays 4; Cardinals 6, Blue Jays 4: The first game of the twin-bill ended in spectacular fashion with Matt Carpenter hitting a walkoff grand slam in the 11th inning. They wouldn’t have even gotten to extras, however, if it wasn’t for Randal Grichuk‘s two-run homer with two outs in the ninth which tied it up. So much drama in game 1 it’s a shame they had to suit up for fame 2 rather than just go out for drinks. But they did play game 2 and it went swell for St. Louis. Dexter Fowler, Greg Garcia and Matt Adams each had three hits. Fowler hit a dinger. The Blue Jays are a total mess. But they’re not the only mess in the bigs right now because . . .

Braves 7, Mets 5: M-E-S-S Mess! Mess! Mess! Six losses in a row and 10 of 11. They’re not scoring. Everyone is getting hurt. Just a disaster. The last time the Mets were this screwed up was just after the All-Star break in 2015 and you know what happened then. Oh, wait, they won the pennant. Eh, let’s let the New York press and Mets fans freak out. Maybe it’s actually warranted this time. Who knows. All I know is that Kurt Suzuki hit a big three-run homer here and when the Braves make you look bad, you’re not living your best life.

Mariners 2, Tigers 1: Justin Verlander and Hisashi Iwakuma battled. Verlander battled a tad better — allowing only an unearned run in seven innings while striking out eight while Iwakuma allowed only one unearned run in five and two-thirds — but the Mariners got the win anyway. The go-ahead run came thanks to a Ben Gamel RBI single off of Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. Can’t trust the Tigers bullpen in a close game. Ever.

Phillies 3, Marlins 2Jeremy Hellickson allowed one run over six innings as the Phillies win their sixth straight. Hellickson is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA on the year. Philly is doing OK right now, but if they aren’t in contention come July, he’s going to be a pretty attractive trade target.

Indians 4, Astros 3: Down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Francisco Lindor hit a two-run bomb. And I mean bomb. The thing was estimated to be over 450 feet. Corey Kluber struck out ten over seven innings. In addition to being one of the best shortstops around, Lindor is hitting .301/.368/.614 on the year and he’s on a 40-homer pace. That $100 million deal he reportedly turned down is gonna look positively quaint.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 0: Masahiro Tanaka tosses a Maddux. You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Here it was a three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base. Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. They’ve only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored  only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven.

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 2: Taijuan Walker struck out 11 and Chris Ownings hit a pair of solo homers. Yasmany Tomas had a two-run homer.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: I had a dream last night that I owed the Oakland A’s $30,000 in medical bills. Something in the dream made it make sense — baseball teams ran hospitals or something — and for whatever reason, my family had used theirs and I was responsible for the bills. My family, by the way, included Ronald Reagan, who was treated at A’s hospital. Insurance wouldn’t cover a lot of his bills because a man had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been his lover, and the insurance company had a right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. What I’m sayin’ is that a lot was going on in this dream and I’m a little upset with the A’s over it right now.

Oh, by the way, Ricky Nolasco allowed one runs in five and two-thirds and four relievers combined to shut the A’s out the rest of the way. The Angels scored both of their runs in the first.

I probably do need that day off, eh? See you Monday.