The 2017 Major League Baseball postseason begins in earnest Tuesday with a one-game American League Wild Card playoff between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees. The winner gets to move on to face the Cleveland Indians in the AL Division Series beginning on Thursday.
The Twins (85-77) are the first team to go from 100 losses one season to the playoffs the next year, making their first postseason appearance since 2010 when they were swept in three games by the Yankees in the ALDS. New York (91-71) last made the playoffs in 2015, falling to the Houston Astros in the wild-card game, and is looking to make a division series for the first time since 2012.
The Yankees won the season series 4-2 over the Twins, sweeping a three-game series at home just two weeks ago.
AL Wild Card Game: Baltimore Orioles vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Where: Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.
Date: Tuesday, October 3
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Live Stream: ESPN3 or the WatchESPN app.
Minnesota didn't clinch its playoff spot until Wednesday, but it was fortunate to already have its ace lined up to start the AL Wild Card Game on regular rest. Right-hander Ervin Santana (16-8, 3.28 ERA) made his final regular-season start on Thursday, scattering four hits over five scoreless innings in a no-decision against the Cleveland Indians.
Santana's last loss came against the Yankees on Sept. 18 when he gave up two runs over 5.2 innings in a 2-1 loss. He's 2-2 in eight postseason appearances, including two starts, but his last playoff game was in the 2009 AL Championship Series with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Yankees are turning to righty Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98), the team leader in wins, ERA, innings (193.1) and strikeouts (230). The 23-year-old will be making his postseason debut, but he enters October on a high note, going 5-1 in his last eight starts with 64 strikeouts over 48.5 innings and has been one of the most dominant Yankees pitchers in recent memory, per Sports-Reference.com:
With both teams going for broke on the mound it will come down to which lineup can produce the most. On paper the edge goes to the Yankees, who led the majors with 241 home runs and finished second in runs per game (5.3).
Right fielder Aaron Judge is a shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year after mashing 52 homers, blowing past Mark McGwire's previous rookie mark of 49. Sure, Judge also led the big leagues in strikeouts (208), but his 127 walks were most in the AL, and he brings a stellar .422 on-base percentage into his first postseason.
Judge isn't the only bat for the Twins pitchers to worry about. Catcher Gary Sanchez blasted 33 homers, shortstop Didi Gregorius has made it possible for Yankee fans to move on from the Derek Jeter era and veteran center fielder Brett Gardner had a career-best 21 homers who hit .282 over the final month of the season.
The Yankees' biggest question mark all year, first base, seems to have been answered with the return of a healthy Greg Bird. Since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 26 he's hit eight homers with 25 RBI and had an OPS of .891.
Minnesota also got a big boost to its lineup on Friday when third baseman Miguel Sano was activated from the DL. He'd missed nearly six weeks with a stress reaction in his left shin but was hitting .267 with 28 homers and 77 RBI before getting hurt.
"I feel like I get the timing quickly, I don't feel any problems at the plate," Sano told Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN in Minneapolis on Saturday after making his first start since Aug. 19. "So I only need to try to stay focused, [let] the pitch come to me, and try to hit the ball."
If he can play designated hitter on Tuesday it takes pressure off the Twins' other power hitters, second baseman Brian Dozier and left fielder Eddie Rosario, to do all the heavy lifting.
There isn't much postseason experience on Minnesota's roster, at least among its hitters, with first baseman Joe Mauer the only remaining player from the 2010 team. Mauer has had a rejuvenated season after three straight years of declining batting average, hitting .305 with 71 RBI, his most since 2012.
That means the Twins will be leaning on a bunch of young guys who are flying blind, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Center fielder Byron Buxton figures to carry over the pace he's been on since the All-Star break, hitting .300 with 11 homers and 35 RBI in the second half compared to .216 with 16 RBI in the first half.
A tight game in the late innings heavily favors the Yankees, who bolstered their bullpen at the trade deadline with the addition of righty relievers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson (along with third baseman Todd Frazier). That duo has combined for a 1.78 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 62 appearances and served as the perfect bridge to the Yankees' two closer options.
Dellin Betances had supplanted Aroldis Chapman for that gig, but the roles appear to have flipped back of late, per Bleacher Report's Stephen Meyer.
Minnesota's bullpen had to be rebuilt after it dealt closer Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals on July 31. Journeyman Matt Belisle converted 9-for-11 save chances after taking over the job.