On first glance, it might be tempting to view the Twins' first-round playoff draw as a bad omen.
The New York Yankees swept Ron Gardenhire's crew last October en route to a World Series title, and they will come back for a rematch beginning Wednesday. The Yankee mystique, restored in full last fall and very much in play even now, will pose a challenge to the Twins from the first pitch onward.
Ample experience and evidence supports the apprehension that continues to grip Twins Country. The absences of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan are conspicuous, as was the team's inability to finish strong after clinching the AL Central on September 22. The bullpen depth and dominant starting pitching that fueled the Twins' second-half breakout now seem to be in question.
Take heart, though, Twins fans. Though it may not seem so, this is the perfect match-up for the Twins. Minnesota will win the Series, likely in four or five games. Here are five reasons why.
Derek Jeter had the best all-around season of his Hall of Fame-worthy career in 2009, batting .334/.406/.465 and swiping 30 bases. He carried that success forward into the Twins-Yankees ALDS, swatting three extra-base hits and batting .400/.538/.900 overall in the three-game sweep.
In 2010, however, age has caught up to Jeter in a big way, resulting in the shortstop's worst season. The guess here is that the decline is permanent for the 36-year-old Yankee, and that spells trouble for New York.
In particular, it spells trouble because of the precisely opposite storyline that has unfolded in the Minnesota camp this season.
Like Jeter, Jim Thome has an impeccable Hall of Fame resume, but in 2009, Thome seemed to be over the hill. He played in only 124 games with the White Sox and Dodgers, and batted a solid but unspectacular .249/.366/.481.
In Minnesota, however, the 40-year-old Thome has found a second wind.
His .283/.412/.627 line in 108 games of full-time designated hitter duty mark the best all-around numbers he has posted since 2002, and he swatted 25 home runs. Thome is unfazed by Minnesota's pitcher-friendly home park and could be the stuff of Yankees pitchers' nightmares before the Series is over.
The Twins pitch to contact; that's just the way it is.
They consistently rank at or near the bottom of the league in both strikeout and walk totals. The staff issued 69 fewer free passes this season than any other AL club. Even the highly selective Yankees (who were second in the league in batter walks) will need to take their cuts and hit the ball.
Therefore, the Twins' home-field advantage—conferred upon them by virtue of playing the Wild Card-winning New Yorkers—is a crucial edge.
Minnesota's home record of 53-28 reflects the fit of the park to its tenants' style of pitching: The team allowed 45 fewer runs at home than on the road this season. Given the Yankees' predilection for the home run, the spacious gaps at Target Field are especially important. Given the overwhelming energy for which the venue has already become famous, it also gives the Twins a decided mental edge.
Lost in the shuffle as pundits debate the merits of CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez for the AL Cy Young award, Liriano's campaign may be as impressive as any.
The tall left-handed hurler struck out better than a batter per inning and walked just 2.7 per nine frames. Until two meaningless post-clinch starts marred his numbers somewhat, Liriano led all AL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Liriano would presumably start Games 1 and 4 of the Series, and therefore would pitch once in each venue. Given his virtual invincibility to the home run, however, it hardly matters where Liriano pitches: No qualifying pitcher gave up fewer long balls per nine innings this year. He has a chance to dominate this October the same way another southpaw (Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels) did two seasons ago.
As the Phillies, Yankees, and Rays have well proved the last two postseasons, it takes 25 players to win October baseball.
Key bench players and relievers like Ben Zobrist, Greg Dobbs, and Phil Hughes—each of whom won more playing time in succeeding seasons on the strength of playoff contributions—fueled the World Series runs of those clubs, and demonstrate the need for depth in both the offensive and defensive phases.
In this Series, the battle of the supporting casts will be won by the Twins—almost by default.
After Sabathia, Hughes, and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' pitching staff is shaky at best. Mid-season additions Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood offer some support, but overall, the Twins have superior balance among their complementary players.
Nick Punto and the bench can beat opposing pitchers in multiple ways, and are all solid defensively. Meanwhile, the Twins can throw both Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn at New York from the bullpen in a short series, accentuating their superiority in that dimension.
Because the Twins clinched very early, they have had ample time to rest achy starters, including Thome, catcher Joe Mauer, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and right fielder Jason Kubel. The return of Justin Morneau would not come until the ALCS at the earliest, but the team that went 44-16 at one stretch of the second half is essentially intact and ready to go.
On the flip side, New York has battled growing injury concerns over the final stages of the regular season. While right fielder Nick Swisher seems to finally be at 100 percent, it is clear that catcher Jorge Posada and pitcher Andy Pettitte (who has been the team's second-best starter when healthy) are not so.
A Yankee squad at full strength or a less rested Twins team might be cause for alarm in the Twin Cities. because Minnesota is deeper and healthier than New York, however, the Twins will be the Norsemen of the Yankees' October apocalypse.
Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.