For the second consecutive year and fourth time in eight, the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees will lock horns in the opening round of the postseason. New York has emerged on top in each of the previous three series, winning nine of 11 games, yet there is a different feel this time around.
The Twins are no longer the overachieving, lovable underdogs built on speed and defense, a cast that often included players found from the scrapheap who were then thrust into pressure-packed situations. This year’s version of the Twins has a payroll of over $100 million for the first time, has shed the “piranha” label bestowed on them by Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, and embraced a power-based offensive philosophy. Instead of Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert and Brendan Harris filling one third of the lineup, Minnesota skipper Ron Gardenhire can write in veterans Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson and rookie of the year candidate Danny Valencia. Also working in Minnesota’s favor is that for the first time they will get the opportunity to open the series at home, where they had the best home record in the American League.
On the New York side, it is the same approach with many of the same players, but chinks in the mighty Yankee armor have begun to appear. Will long-standing Yankee veterans Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte be able to be effective? Over the course of the 162-game grind of the regular season, each battled with either injuries or ineffectiveness, but over a five-game set, a pair of bloop hits or one strong outing on the mound are all that stand in the way of an awful or outstanding series. New York still has their ace C.C. Sabathia lined up to pitch twice, again followed by Pettitte, but the old southpaw doesn’t instill the same confidence this year as in ear’s past. Game three starter Phil Hughes had an excellent year, but will be making his first playff start, after a less than dominant stint as a reliever in last year’s ALDS.
Position by Position Matchups
Catcher: Joe Mauer (MIN) over Jorge Posada
Mauer has been slowed up by a knee injury but his bat looked fine when he laced a double on Sunday. He will have to be huge to spark the Twins offense.
First basemen: Mark Teixeira (NYY) over Michael Cuddyer
Teixeira’s batting average is down to just .256 this season, but his power numbers (33 HR, 108 RBI) remain steady, while Cuddyer’s power has taken a dip. Cuddyer is a key player for the Twins as he and Delmon Young are their two primary right handed power bats against the Yankees two lefthanded starters.
Second basemen: Robinson Cano (NYY) over Orlando Hudson
Hudson has given the Twins a huge lift in the second slot in their lineup, a spot that has been a black hole as far as on-base percentage goes this decade, but Cano is in the running for MVP honors with a stellar all-around year.
Third basemen: Alex Rodriguez (NYY) over Danny Valencia
Rodriguez hit two back-breaking homers in last year’s series to exorcise his October demons. Valencia will be playing his first game against the Yankees after getting called up in June.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter (NYY) over J.J. Hardy
As Jeter has gone, so have the Yankees in postseason’s past. He will try to conjure some playoff magic one more time, as his regular season was fairly pedestrian offensively and even worse defensively. Hardy gives the Twins a little more pop at the bottom of the order than they have in previous years.
Left fielders: Delmon Young (MIN) over Brett Gardner
If Gardner has a bigger impact on this series, it is hard to picture the Twins winning. Minnesota needs Young to step up in the cleanup spot after a breakout season, while Gardner posted a .383 OBP and 47 stolen bases. The Twins need to keep Gardner off of the base paths in front of the middle of the Yankees’ power bats.
Center fielders: Curtis Granderson (NYY) over Denard Span
Both players are very similar in terms of speed and inconsistency getting on base, but Granderson holds the power advantage with 24 long balls versus Span’s 3.
Right fielders: Nick Swisher (NYY) over Jason Kubel
This matchup is very close, but Swisher has the ability to switch hit whereas Kubel has struggled against lefties.
Designated hitters: Jim Thome (MIN) over Marcus Thames and Lance Berkman
Thames has been a thorn in the Twins’ side in the past, but Thome has been an electric find for Minnesota after star Justin Morneau’s season-ending injury.
Bench: The Twins have decent speed and defense off of the bench, but no bats in sight. Mediocre hitting would have put pinch hitter Jose Morales on the roster, but he hit only .196 in limited action and looked overmatched in Game 163 last year. The ability of New York to run Berkman or Thames and Austin Kearns to the plate in late innings makes this category a huge mismatch.
Starting pitchers: Minnesota over New York
Sabathia is by far the top pitcher who will take the mound, but Minnesota’s depth gives them a chance in each game. Liriano is an unknown quantity, but has the stuff to neutralize the Yankees lineup, while Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn all pitched well last year.
Bullpen: Minnesota over New York
The tendency is to give the Yankees the edge because of future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, but that is based more on reputation than recent results. Minnesota can throw Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain at the Yankees to build the bridge to respectable closer Matt Capps, while the Yankees are counting on Kerry Wood, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and Boone Logan. The edge is narrow, but the Twins depth is stronger. For Twins’ fans concerned that the Twins don’t have Joe Nathan this year, he has struggled mightily in big games, including blowing Game two save opportunities the past two times these teams have met.
Managing: Joe Girardi (NYY) over Ron Gardenhire
A little outside-the-box thinking would have been welcome from Gardenhire in past series, but the Twins have built a roster that does not require much adjustment offensively and there is no temptation or need to use this year’s closer in atypical situations. Still, Girardi wears the ring at this point, while Gardenhire does not. Gardenhire has to be feeling the pressure full force this time around. Whether that will be a motivating or deterring force will be key to determining the winner.
What does it all mean?
If there ever was going to be a year for the Twins to take down New York, this would be it. Both teams stumbled down the stretch while parading second- and third-string players onto the diamond with the ultimate goal of being for the first pitch in Game one. Unlike last year, Minnesota was able to clinch early enough to set up their starting rotation and get everyone as ready and rested as possible.
Past Minnesota clubs have relied on speed and small ball to win, a dangerous method to rely on against the Bronx Bombers, who can put up runs in a hurry. To be a championship-caliber team, you have to be able to win in a variety of ways, which the Twins are now capable of doing with a more balanced and powerful attack, including improved starting and relief pitching. The Twins lone wins against New York in 2003 and ’04 were by 3-1 and 2-0 margins, and they were unable to hold late 3-1 and 1-0 leads last year. Minnesota will have to be able to put up at least five or six runs in one of these games to walk out on top and not be content on one-run innings.
Most national media outlets are picking the Yankees based on the two teams’ history, which is fair until the Twins can reverse it. It will be Minnesota’s first opportunity to open up at home against New York, at brand-new Target Field, which should give them an edge. Having Carl Pavano slotted into the Game two spot should give Minnesota a lot of confidence that even if they slip up in Game one that they will be able to come back and even up the series.
The Twins could very well still advance past New York should they lose one of the first two at home, but that would be a monumental task. Even though the Twins have taken two of the past three game ones in the past, they have never been positioned as well as they are this year to back that up and take a series. If Liriano can hang with Sabathia and help the Twins to a 1-0 lead, Minnesota will have an excellent chance of moving on. If Sabathia takes the ball twice and picks up two wins, Minnesota will be in big trouble.
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Written by TS