With the Tigers beating the Indians again last night, the Twins find themselves three games out of first place with 10 games to go. It's not an insurmountable deficit and the Twins will have their shot to make up ground directly when they head to Detroit next week, but first they need to take care of business in Kansas City this weekend.
The good news is that the Royals are not a very good team. The bad news is that they've been playing quite well recently and the Twins have a history of struggling against them late in the year. The worst news is that the Twins will have to finish up this series by facing Zack Greinke, the league's best pitcher and a guy they've been lucky enough to avoid up until this point.
As much as I'd like to say that a series victory here would be palatable, that's really not the case. The Twins need to sweep. They can't afford to lose any ground to the Tigers, and really they can't even afford to just keep pace with them. They need a sweep and they need to hope the Tigers lose one or two in Chicago.
With that in mind, let's break down the Twins' three match-ups at Kaufmann for this weekend:
Game 1: RHP Carl Pavano vs. RHP Robinson Tejeda
After spending much of the year working out of the Royals bullpen, Tejeda has slid into the rotation in September and he's been lights-out. In four starts this month, Tejeda has gone 3-0 with a 0.81 ERA and .117 opponents' batting average, striking out 24 and walking 10 over 22 1/3 innings of work. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and he complements it with a nasty slider, which makes him extremely tough on right-handed hitters. The Twins will have to hope their left-handed batters can carry the load. Patience will be key, as Tejeda has a history of struggling to throw strikes. Pavano has quietly rattled off six straight Quality Starts.
Game 2: RHP Scott Baker vs. LHP Lenny DiNardo
This match-up heavily favors the Twins on paper. Baker has of course been terrific after rebounding from a dreadful start and has a history of dominating the Royals (2.95 ERA in 11 career starts). DiNardo, meanwhile, is coming off an absolute dud against the Red Sox in which he coughed up eight runs on 10 hits and six walks and threw only half of his 116 pitches for strikes. DiNardo is the type of junk-tossing lefty that has given the Twins headaches in the past, but there's no excuse for them not to romp him in a game of this magnitude.
Game 3: LHP Francisco Liriano vs. RHP Zack Greinke
This is the biggie. Finally we'll get our first look at Greinke, who is having an absolute monster season and will be the runaway Cy Young winner if there is any justice in the world. Meanwhile, the Twins will counter with Liriano, who will need to be on top of his game because Greinke doesn't give up multiple runs in a start very often. In fact, he hasn't done so since August 25; over his past five starts he has allowed one run over 35 innings (0.26 ERA). And in his last start prior to that span, he allowed two runs in eight innings and struck out 15 batters. The Twins have had some success against top AL pitchers this year (Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay come to mind) but Greinke is a different beast entirely. The last time Liriano started against the Royals he tossed seven innings of one-run ball, yielding only three hits and a single walk while fanning eight. If he can return to that form, this could be a great duel. If not, it's tough to imagine how the Twins are going to find a way to win this thing.