With the Twins nursing a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central and with the White Sox looking ahead at a more imposing final stretch (10 of Chicago's 37 remaining games come against the Yankees and Red Sox), some Twins fans are cautiously beginning to shift their attention toward potential postseason match-ups.
It's a question that has been posed to me often: Who would you rather face in the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees or Rays? Since those two teams have pulled away in the AL East and there's very little chance that the wild card will be coming from any other division, it's almost inevitable that the Twins would face one of those two clubs in the first round should they secure a postseason berth.
Determining which team the Twins would face is simple. If they maintain their slim lead over the Rangers in the win/loss column, the Twins would face whichever team finishes second in the East and enters the postseason as wild card. If the Twins finish with a worse record than the Rangers but still edge the White Sox and win the AL Central, they'd face the AL East champs in the Division Series.
Determining which team the Twins would want to face is a little more complicated.
Most fans would opt for a match-up against the Rays without a second thought. The Twins have played Tampa Bay very competitively this year, both at home and on the road, and let's face it: the Rays just don't have that same intimidating aura surrounding them as the Yankees. Given the Twins' hideous track record against New York over the past decade, it's almost impossible to believe there's not some sort of mental block at work.
But it's no coincidence that the Rays are tied with the Yankees atop baseball's best division; they are a really good team that would pose several match-up problems for the Twins. For one thing, the Rays possess an outstanding rotation led by an ace southpaw who wreaks havoc on left-handed hitters. They also lead the league in stolen bases, which could make them a nightmare for a Twins team whose likely Game One starter is abysmal at controlling the running game.
All things being even, yeah, I'd probably rather see the Twins face the Rays than the Yankees in the first round. New York's powerful lineup and the prospect of trying to win a game in Yankee Stadium are daunting enough. But all things are not even. Because, while both the Yankees and Rays are near-locks to make the playoffs, it's completely unclear at this point which team will do so as division champ and which will do so as the wild card. That's an important distinction, because the latter will have to go on the road for the first two games of the ALDS.
If they finish the year with a better record than the AL West champs, the Twins will hold home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Without question, that's more important than which team they match up against. Despite switching ballparks, the Twins have been as reliant as ever on their home field advantage this season, posting a tremendous 40-22 record at Target Field as opposed to a pedestrian 32-32 mark on the road. Throughout the history of the franchise, the Twins have traditionally leaned on winning in their home park to advance through the postseason, and while they no longer play in the quirky Metrodome, they would hold a distinct October advantage over opposing clubs (especially a warm weather/dome team like Texas/Tampa Bay) who aren't accustomed to the chilly outdoor conditions that the Twins will be able to acclimate to in September.
I learned first-hand last year in Game 163 how a team can feed off the emotions of a packed house in a pivotal ballgame. Target Field in September won't be the deafening, raucuous spectacle that the Metrodome was, but opposing teams will be none too comfortable trying to compete in that small space packed to the brim with, for my money, the best fans in baseball.
Of course, gaining that home field edge is completely dependent on the Twins finishing with a better record than the Rangers. So as long as the White Sox don't make a September surge, it could turn out that these last two games in Texas, along with the three-game set between the Twins and Rangers next weekend in Minnesota, may prove to be the most important ones on the remaining schedule.
Whether it's against the Yankees or Rays, the Twins will be in much better position in the playoffs if they force their opponent to beat them in Target Field.