The Twins entered this season with high expectations, and through 34 games they've not disappointed. Their record stands at 22-12 and they sit three games ahead in the AL Central. They've lost only one series all year. The offense is scoring runs, the rotation is delivering strong starts and the bullpen has mostly held up. This Twins team has given us little to complain about.
Yet, in a way, it seems almost as though the Twins have simply been going through the motions up to this point. Have they truly been challenged? Really, one should expect a team with a $100 million payroll and a roster packed with as much talent as this one to consistently win series against sub-.500 teams, and that's almost exclusively what the Twins have faced so far. Among opponents the Twins have faced up to this point, only the Red Sox and Tigers currently sport a winning record. One of those teams -- Detroit -- handed the Twins their only series loss of the season. The other -- Boston -- slumped badly early in the season, when the Twins had the fortune of facing them.
Now, the Twins will get their first real test as they embark on a seven-game road trip that will have them touring baseball's toughest division, the AL East. Before playing two-game sets against the solid Blue Jays and the improving Red Sox, the Twins will head to New York for a series that many Twins fans (and, I would guess, players and coaches) have had circled on their schedules for many months.
The Twins' ineptitude against the Yankees over the past decade or so is well documented. They're 3-23 in Yankee Stadium since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager and went 0-10 against the Bombers last season, including a three-game postseason sweep. While the Yankees have almost always had a better team, it's astonishing how much the Twins have struggled to win games against them. At times, the losses have been uncontested blowouts, at other times they've been closely fought battles where a few fortuitous breaks enabled the Yankees to squeeze by. What's been constant is this: the Twins have had an incredibly hard time finding a way to win against this baseball team, particularly in New York's hostile home stadium.
Of course, this year's Twins team offers a very different dynamic than past Gardenhire clubs. For once, they've broken into the top third of the league in team payroll. They're still not close to the Yankees in that regard, but they're spending enough to boast quality players at most positions. In the ALDS last year, the Yankees out-homered the Twins 6-0; that's not likely to happen again. In fact, it would hardly come as a big surprise if the Twins were able to hit more balls out of the park than their opponents this weekend.
Let's take a look at the pitching match-ups that are lined up for this key series:
Game 1 (Friday): Scott Baker vs. A.J. Burnett
Burnett's great stuff hasn't been as overwhelming to hitters this year as it has been in the past. He's notched only 32 strikeouts over 45 innings in his first seven starts, translating to a 6.4 K/9 IP rate that would rank as easily his lowest since 2001 if it stuck. That hasn't stopped Burnett from being effective, as he's cut down on walks while going 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA up to this point, but it might catch up with him at some point. Maybe it already has; he's coming off a disastrous outing against the Red Sox on Sunday in which he allowed nine runs -- eight earned -- over 4 1/3 innings. The Twins might be getting him at just the right time.
The opposite is true of Baker. After struggling through the month of April -- as he is wont to do -- Baker has gotten his month of May off to a far better start. He chipped in a Quality Start against the Tigers in his first outing this month, and then turned in his best performance of the season his last time out, shutting out the Orioles over eight innings while fanning eight and walking none. Baker is a guy who can really become a force when he gets into a groove, and we might be seeing signs of that now.
Game 2 (Saturday): Francisco Liriano vs. Andy Pettitte
I hope that many of you will be taking this contest in with me at Majors in Bloomington tomorrow afternoon. This game will be a great test for Liriano, who was victimized by terrible luck in his last turn in giving up five runs and 10 hits without getting hit particularly hard. If Liriano, who seemingly had a hard time putting dud performances behind him last year, can rebound from that outing and deliver a strong start against the Yankees in New York, he'll make believers out of any lingering doubters out there. The Yankees have been among the least strikeout-prone teams in the league this year, so he may have to rely on ground balls rather than punch-outs to succeed. Fortunately, he's shown that he can do that.
Pettitte, like Burnett, is a guy whom the Twins would seem to be facing at a somewhat opportune time. While he'd been dealing over his first six starts, going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA, Pettitte had his last turn skipped due to elbow inflamation. He wouldn't be slotted back into the rotation if the Yankees didn't feel he was ready, but Pettitte is 37 and these things don't always heal quickly for aging vets.
Game 3 (Sunday): Nick Blackburn vs. Sergio Mitre
Blackburn's season got off to a horrid start, but he's shown signs of settling in lately, having delivered consecutive Quality Starts for the Twins. Given his astonishing inability to miss bats (he's struck out only nine of the 169 batters he's faced this year), Blackburn presents the most concerning match-up against this imposing New York lineup, but it's tough to forget the admirable effort he put forth the last time he pitched in this stadium, hurling 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in last year's ALDS.
Mitre has achieved solid results this season, but he's nothing more than a veteran swingman at this point. Given his major susceptibility to lefty hitters, this is a match-up that bodes well for the Twins.
So there you have it. Objectively, it's tough to see any of these pitching match-ups being drastically slanted in New York's favor. The Twins are fortunate enough to skip CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, who have both been tremendous this year. Several of New York's offensive regulars are banged up as well. There are no excuses. It's time for the Twins to get this monkey off their shoulders.
Those who have watched the Twins regularly up to this point know that this is a good team capable of competing with anyone. But if the Twins want to prove to the nation that they're for real while shedding the widely held belief that they play scared against the Big Bad Bronx Bombers, they need to make a statement this weekend.
Update: For a view from the other side, check out the series preview over at Yankeeist.