It comes down to the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays and their jockeying for position in the AL East. The loser gets handed a wild card berth and a first round ticket to Target Field in Minnesota. If the Yankees get thrust into this matchup, it will be the second year in a row that they face off with the Twins in the postseason.
The Yankees prevailed last year en route to the World Series, but now if they were to duel with the Twins, they would be facing a red hot, offensively-charged club that wants to win now, more than ever. It could probably be assumed that a matchup between the two would be closer and more competitive than it has been in the past.
From looking at it from the Twins vantage point, there are a lot of factors that could work in their favor in this series, despite the fact that they lost the season series against the Yankees this year. Here are the biggest reasons why the Twins could shock the defending World Champions at any point in the playoffs over the next month.
Derek Jeter, the biggest Bronx Bomber name, has been having an off year. Not that it is his fault, the guy is getting up there in age. But his declining game could suppress the Yankees in the postseason if he doesn't step it up to help completely fulfill his leadership role on the team. The Yankees can't afford to see some of his numbers carry over into the postseason, such as how he has grounded into a team-leading 21 double plays this year and is uncharacteristically batting .267.
The Yankees are in good hands with Jeter as their leader, but he will need to crank up the dial a bit when the playoffs roll around. The offensively-charged Twins could take advantage of his declining bat.
Twins catcher Joe Mauer is a legitimate one-man threat to any opposition. The former first overall draft selection is batting a career .327. He's a dominant clutch hitter and is fully capable of teeing off against any pitcher, no matter which arm they throw with.
Mauer collected six hits in the ALDS last year against the Yankees. Also, in seven regular season games at the new Yankee Stadium, Mauer has blasted off with three home runs. He will have no problem spraying the ball all over the place at home and in the Bronx during the potential postseason showdown between the Twins and Yankees.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi may have the World Series experience that Ron Gardenhire lacks, but Girardi has been one of baseball's most-criticized managers throughout the 2010 season. Gardenhire, on the other hand, has been praised as usual and for good reason.
Girardi gets shunned for his recent tendency to do a lot of unnecessary replacing of relief pitchers during the middle of games. The pitching staff is not where the Yankees can afford to lose out on any stability in the postseason.
Ron Gardenhire seems to always gain praise for building something out of almost nothing every year. The Twins jumped the White Sox after their cold streak last month and have never looked back.
In his ninth consecutive season managing the Twins, he's led them to division titles six times, including this year. The Twins just might be in better hands at the moment.
The Yankees are hitting .258 against left-handed starting pitching. It isn't terrible, but of late that number has been magnified.
The Yankees have been on a stretch in which they have lost about seven games in a row to left-handed starters. This isn't going to fly against a Twins rotation that contains Francisco Liriano, who suppresses big bats as well as any pitcher. If Brian Duensing makes an impact in the Twins rotation in the postseason, the Yankees might receive the brunt end of his impressive pitching.
The collective of big bats must try and take advantage of the best pitching the Twins throw out there.
The New York Yankees may possess the most dominant pitcher in this matchup, but the consistency, especially of late, runs deeper through the Twins rotation. Without debate, C.C. Sabathia is the best pitcher featured on either team in the series, and Andy Pettitte follows closely behind, despite bouncing back from a groin injury. Phil Hughes has been solid, but A.J. Burnett and Javy Vazquez are like human roller coasters—as unpredictable as anything.
Of late, there has been much more stability up and down the Minnesota rotation.
Take Kevin Slowey for example: He is 5-1 in his last eight starts, and during the month of September, he has posted a 2.30 ERA in three starts with 15 strikeouts.
The depth in this rotation doesn't end there. Carl Pavano has tossed seven complete games and walked just 36 in 214 innings of work. Francisco Liriano doesn't allow home runs, and that will be clutch on the road at Yankee Stadium.
The Twins have flexibility with the roles of Nick Blackburn and standout Brian Duensing as well. The Twins starting pitching simply seems deeper.
There is a ton of experience and aggressiveness in this Twins bullpen. Despite losing closer Joe Nathan to injury prior to the season, the Twins' relief pitching has rebounded much better than they could have expected. Even without Nathan, they've been on the receiving end of reliable ninth inning work from Jon Rauch and Matt Capps, who have combined for 37 saves.
It doesn't end there for Minnesota. Right-handers Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier have both sported a ton of command and reliability in the middle relief and setup roles. Southpaws Brian Duensing and Jose Mijares both have ERAs below 3.00 in relief roles.
The depth in the Twins bullpen might be unparalleled, despite how the Yankees toss out future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera and the surprisingly reliable arms of David Robertson and Boone Logan.
This allows for Ron Gardenhire to have a lot more confidence managing games in the late innings, something Joe Girardi has mishandled a bit this year.