Tuesday, October 03, 2006

ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Athletics

For the past few weeks, we've been gearing up for a first-round postseason showdown with the New York Yankees. It would have been the third time in the past four years that the two teams had met in the ALDS, and a good opportunity for the Twins to exact some revenge. Instead, a dramatic turn of events on Sunday has dictated that the Twins will face the Oakland Athletics in the first round of the playoffs, with Game 1 taking place at the Metrodome this afternoon.

The Twins and A's last met in the playoffs in 2002. In that series, the inexperienced Twins were considered a long-shot, and after falling behind 2 games to 1 it seemed inevitable that their upstart season would be coming to a quick close. However, the Twins came back with a blowout victory in Game 4 and squeezed by 5-4 in the decisive Game 5 to advance to the ALCS, where they lost to the eventual World Series champion Angels.

In that '02 series, major contributors for the Twins included Eric Milton and A.J. Pierzynski. Four years later, several players who the Twins received in trades for those players will be counted on for significant contributions: Boof Bonser, Joe Nathan, Nick Punto and perhaps even Carlos Silva.

Nowadays, the Athletics are built in a fairly similar mold to the Twins. They don't hit too much, but they can pitch and play defense. With that said, it should be noted that their offensive problems are far beyond anything the Twins experienced this season. Oakland ranked 13th out of 14 American League teams in batting average, and also ranked 13th in team slugging percentage, finishing just one point better than the impotent Royals. No Athletic batted over .300, although they do have some patient hitters who can get on base. Eric Chavez hit just .241, but managed a .351 OBP. Frank Thomas posted an unimpressive .270 batting average, but complemented that with an excellent .381 OBP. In fact, even though they ranked second-to-last in AVG and SLG, the A's ranked 7th in the AL in on-base percentage and drew more walks than any AL team other than the Red Sox.

Still, walks aren't particularly frightening, especially for a Twins staff that features great control. The most imposing bat in the Oakland lineup is of course Thomas, who put himself in the MVP conversation by hitting .270/.381/.545 with 39 HR and 114 RBI this year. He also posted an even K/BB ratio. Left fielder Nick Swisher is a dangerous hitter who ripped 35 home runs this year, but he also hit just .255 and struck out 150 times. Outside of those two, Oakland's lineup is less than intimidating. Chavez ranks third on the team in homers at 22, but he had a poor year offensively, hitting just .241/.351/.436. Only two players on the team (Jay Payton and Jason Kendall) hit for a better average than .275.

While both the Athletics and Twins feature pitching as a strong point, Minnesota's unit has got to be seen as a considerably stronger one. The Twins have a team ERA of 3.92, compared to Oakland's 4.17. The Athletics bullpen does not match up particularly well against the Twins, because their only left-handed reliever is Joe Kennedy, who, despite posting an excellent 2.31 ERA in 35 innings this season, lacks great stuff and has been a mediocre pitcher over the course of his career.

Here's a breakdown of the projected pitching match-ups for the first three games of the series:

Game 1, Today: Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83) vs. Johan Santana (19-6, 2.77)
You won't find much debate over the fact that Santana is the best pitcher in the major leagues. He was steady all season, giving his team a chance to win in every start he made, dominating opposing hitters with a league-leading 245 strikeouts and keeping runners off the basepaths with a 0.99 WHIP. Santana was somewhat susceptible to the long-ball this season, giving up 24 home runs, but that shouldn't be a major issue against this Oakland lineup. Trends indicate that Santana should have success in Game 1. He went 12-0 with a 2.19 ERA at the Metrodome this season, and he comes in hot with a 1.78 ERA in five September starts. He's also pitching on a full week's rest.

Zito had a solid season, but it was nothing to write home about. He issued a ton of walks (99, second in the league), so it is imperative that the Twins hitters show patience at the plate. Although he's a southpaw, Zito is generally tougher on right-handed hitters than lefties, as he tends to have trouble throwing his big curveball for strikes against left-handers. Mauer and Morneau will need to lay off that pitch, or else take it to left field for a base hit.

Game 2, Wednesday: Esteban Loaiza (11-9, 4.89) vs. Boof Bonser (7-6, 4.22)
One year ago, Bonser was probably sitting at home, having just finished a solid yet unspectacular season at the Triple-A level in which he posted a 3.99 ERA with a 1.31 WHIP. Now he's starting Game 2 of a playoff series, and he'll be hearing his unique first name echo through the cavernous Metrodome from 45,000 fans. The rookie Bonser showed a great ability to adjust in his first season in the big leagues, and in the season's final month he went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA and was a major factor in the Twins climb to the top of the AL Central. If he can keep his emotions in check and continue to mix up his pitches and change speeds as effectively as he did throughout the later part of the season, he should be able to shut down the A's offense.

Oakland's decision to make Loaiza their Game 2 starter is rather puzzling to me. Loaiza did not have a very good year by any measure, and he got knocked around badly in his only start against the Twins in early April. Loaiza did pitch considerably better in the second half of the season (4.01 post-break ERA) than he did in the first half (6.43 pre-break), but he didn't have a great September and he also posted a 6.08 ERA on the road this season.

Game 3, Friday: Brad Radke (12-9, 4.32) vs. Rich Harden (4-0, 4.24)
Harden is an excellent young pitcher, but he missed much of the year with an elbow injury that limited him to 46 2/3 innings on the season. Harden made three starts in late September after returning from the disabled list. He looked good in the first couple, but he struggled mightily in his final start against the Angels on Sunday, issuing six walks in 3 2/3 innings. Nevertheless, if Harden is on his game, he is extremely tough to hit; he held opposing batters to a measly .191 average in the innings he did pitch this season. Because of his injury, Harden made only one start between April 26 and September 21. That was against the Twins on June 4, and he held them to one run on four hits over four innings, striking out six.

Radke is, of course, a huge question mark for the Twins. He has major shoulder issues that could seemingly end his season (and career) at any given time. After a horrendous start to his season, Radke was terrific in the second half for the Twins, going 5-2 with a 2.84 ERA after the All-Star break. He looked good in a five-inning start last Thursday, but it's impossible to know what will happen with Radke's shoulder. If he has to come out of the game early, it will likely be Carlos Silva or Scott Baker taking his place, which could be troublesome.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

When I made my preseason predictions back in March, I picked the Athletics to represent the American League in the World Series. In fact, I had them getting there by defeating the Twins in a playoff series (although my setup them facing off in the ALCS). Well, with everything that has happened over the course of the year, I'm changing my tune. I just don't see the A's as having an advantage over the Twins in any facet of the game. The Twins have a better offense, a better bullpen, better starting pitching (with Santana able to go twice, if needed), better defense, and at least an equally good bench. All that, and they are able to play the first two games of the series in their own stadium, where they have been tougher to beat than any other team in the league.

All you have to do is a read a Bay-area newspaper to realize how much the A's are looking forward to playing in the Metrodome:
The A's will need all of that newfound energy, and more, in a place where infield choppers turn into doubles and drives to the outfield get lost in the Teflon. Oh, it is horrible. Wow, is it loud. A single victory there would be a titanic accomplishment.
Finally the Twins have escaped the underdog role that they've played all season long. They are pretty much unanimous favorites in this series with Oakland. How they will respond to this new situation remains to be seen, but I see no reason that this magical season should end with this series. Twins in four.

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