Justin Morneau finished the spring in a frenzy, but it hasn’t carried over, as he’s hit just .206/.270/.353 with two RBI and 10 strikeouts in 34 at-bats since the regular season started. As a result, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has decided to drop him down to fifth in the lineup and insert Josh Willingham in between Joe Mauer and Morneau.
MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger reports that it’s the first time since April 4, 2008 that Mauer and Morneau have been in the lineup and not hit back-to-back. Mauer was a No. 2 hitter that day, with Michael Cuddyer hitting third ahead of Morneau.
Dropping Morneau in the lineup seemed like the smart choice from the moment Willingham was signed by the Twins, particularly against left-handers. If nothing else, it would have served to separate the team’s two (hopefully) potent left-handed bats. Gardenhire, though, wasn’t eager to take the step, and he wasn’t willing to have Willingham and Morneau ‘platoon’ between the two spots (batting Willingham fourth versus lefties and Morneau fourth against righties would have made tons of sense).
But if there’s some hurt feelings, hopefully Gardenhire can convince Morneau that this is less about him and more about Willingham, who has been one of the game’s hottest hitters with a .419/.514/.871 line to date. Morneau has actually been pretty good against righties so far, hitting .292. However, he’s 0-for-10 against lefties.
The Yankees and Astros are set for Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, and neither team will hold back as they seek a World Series berth. The Astros are prepared to back starter Charlie Morton with any able-bodied pitcher in their ranks — including Justin Verlander, though A.J. Hinch said it would be a “dream scenario” to get anything more from his ace — while the Yankees are prepared to utilize all but a few of their arms. One pitcher you won’t see? Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who last took the hill for the Yankees during their Game 5 shutout on Wednesday.
Tanaka expended 103 pitches over seven scoreless innings in his last start, fending off the Astros with three hits, a walk and eight strikeouts. He hasn’t pitched on fewer than three days of rest all year, and even with a do-or-die scenario facing the Yankees on Saturday night, manager Joe Girardi doesn’t want to compromise his starter’s ability to stay rested and ready for the World Series.
Girardi will also play it safe with fellow right-hander Sonny Gray, who dominated in a five-inning performance in Game 4. All other pitchers should be available and ready to go, though the club is hoping for a lengthy outing from veteran starter CC Sabathia. Sabathia is no stranger to the postseason: over eight separate playoff runs, he touts one championship title and a collective 4.24 ERA in 123 innings. He held the Astros scoreless in his Game 3 start, blanking them over six innings on three hits, four walks and five strikeouts for an eventual 8-1 win.
Even without Tanaka or Gray likely to take the mound for Game 7, the Yankees will enter the series finale with history on their side. Per MLB.com, they have a 4-3 road record in Game 7s and are 6-7 in all 13 Game 7 finales to date. The Astros, on the other hand, dropped their first and only Game 7 clincher back in 2004, when the Cardinals capped the NLCS with a 5-2 win in St. Louis. The teams are scheduled to face off for the first-ever Game 7 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday at 8:00 PM ET.