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.
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.
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.
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.
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.