In a rematch of one of last year's American League Division Series', the Twins and Yankees will square off tonight at Target Field in what is clearly a David v. Goliath battle. Many have already placed the Bombers in the American League Championship Series either facing the Texas Rangers or Tampa Bay Rays. However, fans should be mindful that anything can happen in the playoffs and the Yankees of this year are not as stable as the Yankees of last year.
Rather than striving for home-field advantage manager Joe Girardi decided to rest some of his starters and settled for the Wild Card, giving the Twins an upper hand of which they should take advantage. The Yankees' big bats are clearly more potent at home, where Yankee Stadium allows for doubles in most parks to carry into the bleachers. At Target Field, Minnesota can rely on their gap hitters and base-to-base hitting rather than having to compete with the long ball. Besides home-field, the Twins as a team also have some pitching and hitting that could provide a threat against New York as they take the field tonight.
The Starting Rotation
The Twins may not have the star quality big-name pitching that the Yankees have, but they do have pitchers that can keep them in the game. It all begins with 2010 Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano, who unlike last year, is healthy and showing the pitching arsenal that he demonstrated back in 2006 when he looked like the future ace of the Minnesota staff.
With Alex Rodriguez struggling against lefties for the majority of the season and breakout player Robinson Cano fairing much better against right-handers this season, the rest of the Yankees lineup will have to step up against the young fire-baller. New York shouldn't expect too much out of Curtis Granderson or Brett Gardner with both young outfielders batting below 250 against left-handers for the season. Liriano only allowed 2 runs earlier this season as the Twins lost 3-2 on a Nick Swisher home run late in the game.
Carl Pavano, a former Yankee, didn't face the Bombers early in the season, but in his two starts since leaving the Yankees Pavano has pitched admirably, only allowing 4 runs in 13 innings to the tune of 2.70 ERA. The fact that Pavano is at home rather than at Yankee Stadium should help his cause in limiting the Yankees and generating ground balls at a high rate as he has done all season. Pavano pitched well last postseason against the Yankees and many fans forget that since the Yankees won the game. It may be different this time around if Andy Pettitte isn't as sharp as last year.
Brian Duensing, the Game 3 starter is the true definition of a ground ball pitcher. For Duensing to limit the Yankees, the double play will have to be key and he will need to keep the ball down. If there is anyone that could keep the ball in the park it's Duensing and the Yankees should be looking to capitalize early on the young lefties fastball or else they could fall pray to his off-speed pitches as the game goes on.
The fact that the Twins have two left-handers going against New York this series gives them a real shot at limiting the Yankees run support with Yankees slugger Robinson Cano feasting against right-handed pitching this season.
The lineup for the Twins is much stronger last year and much deeper. Although they don't have Justin Morneau for the playoffs as they didn't last year, they still have some hitters that can do some damage. Unlike the Yankees, the Twins are gap hitters rather than home run hitters. In last years' ALDS, the Yankees did not have to face Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, and J.J. Hardy. Instead, they faced Orlando Cabrera, Jose Morales and Nick Punto.
Although the names may be not as recognizable as A-Rod and Jeter, the difference in offensive ability is tremendous. More importantly, this year, Minnesota outfielder, Delmon Young has finally channeled his god given talent and become a major run producer, driving in over 100 RBIs for the first time in his career. With little known Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer providing support, the Twins bats aren't as bad as some may think.
Then of course there is catcher Joe Mauer, the one recognizable Twin who even the average baseball fan will recognize. Once again Mauer had an All-Star season and despite a drop in his power numbers is one of the best hitters in baseball. With him behind the plate, the Twins know they will need their leader to step up and take control of this series for the Twins to have any chance versus New York.
The advantage for Minnesota is clearly the quality depth of their bullpen. The Yankees will always be able to throw out Mariano Rivera in the 9th and likely eliminate any chance the Twins had of winning, but the rest of the Yankees bullpen is still an uncertainty after an up and down season for most of their relief pitchers. There is no sure thing with a bullpen that has seen the good and the bad from both Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, while Boone Logan, who was a perennial 5 ERA pitcher with the White Sox and Braves for the past 4 years, had a career year. Kerry Wood, who has had a sparkling ERA has helped spark the Yankees bullpen down the stretch, but his penchant for walking batters when getting behind in the count will be of a major concern in the playoffs and the Twins have opportunistic hitters.
The Twins bullpen has quality spread throughout, but is led by the top 5 of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Matt Capps. Fuentes, Rauch, and Capps have all been closers at some point in their career, while the latter two have succeeded more recently. Fuentes has been somewhat erratic against New York, but his lefty pitching will be counted on in the 7th and 8th against Cano, Granderson, and Rodriguez. Both Crain and Guerrier are the definition of solid relief pitchers. Neither are going to blow hitters away, but they will get outs when their team needs them. With a lot of experience and talent, the bullpen gives Ron Gardenhire the option to mix and match when in the late innings and if any of the games go to extra innings.
The Yankees Shortcomings
New York's shortcomings, may be the biggest reason Minnesota has an opportunity to upset the defending champions. The "Core 4" haven't been producing as the have in the past and age may have finally taken its toll. With Andy Pettitte coming off both groin and back injuries, he will be starting Game 2 after only 4 innings of 9 hit ball in his last outing against a Red Sox team that was fielding mostly minor leaguers. The rust could easily show itself and put the Yankees behind the 8-ball early in Game 2.
Derek Jeter has hit more like a bottom of the lineup hitter than a lead-off hitter and hit into more double plays than one could fathom for the future Hall-of-Famer. Jorge Posada has clearly shown decline both offensively and defensively, with a significant difference hitting at home than on the road. In September, even Rivera showed some signs of not being at his best, even blowing a few saves, However, out of all of the Yankees heading into the postseason he is still the least likely to make any mistakes.
Third starter, Phil Hughes will experiencing his first playoff start and has been underwhelming in the second half of the season after putting up Cy Young numbers in the first half. With average showings against Tampa Bay in his last 2 starts Hughes will need to revert to his first half self in order for New York to avoid a close Game 3.
Possibly the most vital shortcoming could be the Yankees lack of rotation depth, meaning C.C. Sabathia will once again go on 3 days rest. Although Sabathia was able to do so last year, with success, there is no telling if he could do so again. Furthermore, he will be pitching at Yankee Stadium in a possible Game 4 and at less than his best that could be dangerous. If Sabathia begins to wear down and leaves the ball up in the strike zone, Minnesota is exactly the type of team that could capitalize. Sabathia is hittable if he doesn't have his best stuff as the Orioles and Rays showed in 3 out of his last 5 games pitched.
*The Yankees lineup still has significantly better talent, but as Yankees' fans can attest to, the same energy from last year is lacking and players have not been playing up to their career levels. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Posada are all having down years by their standards and new acquisitions outfielder Curtis Granderson and DH Lance Berkman have had years that have led many Yankees fans to question why they were acquired and Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui were allowed to leave via free agency.
The three Yankees having good to excellent career years, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, and Robinson Cano will need to play well. If Gardner can't get on base and make his speed a factor, the Yankees will not be nearly as much of a threat as if he can. Swisher and Cano will need to continue to take advantage of balls up in the strike zone and not look to crush the ball on every pitch.
Although it hasn't been mentioned as of yet, the most significant, but least noted advantage Minnesota has is at the managerial position. Although the Yankees won the World Series last year with Girardi, it can easily be stated that they won in spite of him rather than because of him. Girardi has made more than his fair share of questionable calls with his bullpen and his lineup and managed "not to lose" rather than to win. Twins fans can breathe easy with Ron Gardenhire at the helm and although this may be a side-note to average fans it could be the difference if the series advances to a Game 5.
If Minnesota does not win one of the first two games the Yankees should eliminate them by Game 4. However, if they can one of those games a Game 5 at Target Field is not out of the realm of possibility. The fact that the Yankees are entering the playoffs with only 10 wins in their last 25 games gives the Twins momentum heading into the playoffs. With a solid, albeit unspectacular rotation, opportunistic gap-to-gap hitters, a deep bullpen, and the Yankees shortcoming the Twinkies could surprise the nation and move on to the ALCS. Would I bet on it? Probably not. But would I be surprised? Not one bit.