Yesterday's loss to the Athletics sealed the Twins' first series loss in nearly a month, and their first at Target Field since mid-July. They still made progress toward clinching a division title thanks to the plummeting White Sox dropping their sixth straight game, an ugly extra-innings loss against the Tigers. The Twins' Magic Number now sits at four, and they'll likely pop the champagne sometime this week.
With only 13 regular-season games remaining, it's fair to start casting our gaze toward the postseason. The Twins, just one game shy of the MLB-best Yankees in the win/loss column, continue to pursue the American League's No. 1 seed. For now, the Twins are at the very least virtually assured home field advantage in the first round, as their five-game edge over the Rangers has them lined up to host the AL wild card in the ALDS.
There are a few questions worth pondering as we consider how the Twins might arrange their their playoff roster, which must be whittled down considerably from its current expanded state. For today, I submit four such questions for discussion:
1) Who starts Game 1?
As the rotation currently projects, Francisco Liriano is in line to start Game 1. I'd certainly support that course of action, as I feel Liriano is one of the league's elite starting pitchers and would match up most evenly with David Price or CC Sabathia.
Carl Pavano hasn't been as good as Liriano this year and he treads a more dangerous slope with his tendency to allow contact, but he's the veteran with postseason experience and it wouldn't surprise me if he were Ron Gardenhire's preference.
2) Who starts Game 4?
We basically know that Liriano, Pavano and Brian Duensing will be Gardenhire's top three playoff starters, in whatever order. What's not nearly as clear is who might get the nod in a fourth game, if necessary. Scott Baker has fallen out of the picture due to his recent injury, so it comes down to Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn.
Slowey has significantly better numbers than Blackburn this season. He gets more strikeouts but is a lot more fly ball prone. Blackburn was arguably the league's worst pitcher over the first four months of the season, but he's gotten far better results since being recalled from a brief demotion to the minors and that improvement is supported by an uptick in ground balls. While I think the cliche oversimplifies matters, it does seem as though Blackburn has "found his sinker."
Ultimately, both Blackburn and Slowey give you reason to be nervous against a lineup like Tampa's or New York's, and it could be that the answer to this question will be dictated by who pitches better in their final turns.
At this time, though, I've got to believe Blackburn's experience pitching in big games (and pitching well) makes him the front-runner.
With all that being said, if the Twins face elimination in Game 4, I wouldn't be surprised to see Gardenhire go back to his Game 1 starter on short rest. Liriano's arm seems to need every extra day of rest it can get, which is another reason Gardy might favor Pavano as Game 1 starter.
3) What is Scott Baker's role?
He was the Twins' Opening Day starter this year, and now there's a possibility that he'll be a healthy scratch from the postseason roster. Poor kid.
Baker has been absent from the Twins' rotation over the past few weeks while battling a sore forearm, and now that he's ready to return there's no room for him. Gardenhire has indicated that Baker will work out of the bullpen and maybe make a spot start during as the season winds down, which means he's got almost no shot at starting a playoff game.
Then, Baker becomes part of a bit of a roster crunch. With the abbreviated rotation and extra days off during postseason play, there's little reason to carry more than 11 pitchers, and the Twins will already have one starter in the bullpen. There's no sense in carrying Baker as an extra mop-up guy, and it's anyone's guess whether Gardenhire would be willing to use him in tight late-inning situations.
I'll say this much: If Baker is left off the playoff roster at the expense of Matt Guerrier or Jon Rauch, I think it's a mistake. Baker has better stuff and would be a more effective weapon in middle relief.
4) Can Justin Morneau return?
It's the question that continues to resonate quietly through Twins Territory. Morneau was an MVP front-runner when he went down with a concussion in early July, and he hasn't played since. The Twins still haven't officially shut Morneau down for the season, and recent reports have the first baseman "feeling really good," so hope lingers on.
There are only 13 games left in the season and probably not enough time for Morneau to sharpen his skills with a stint down in Florida and jump back in right where he left off with the Twins. If we're being realistic, the chances of Morneau starting at first base and batting cleanup in Game 1 of the ALDS are close to nil.
But one thing that I've contemplated lately is the possibility that Morneau might return to the Twins strictly as a bench threat in October. Even accounting for his time away from the game, Morneau still figures to be a far better pinch-hitting threat than anything else the Twins can muster, especially with Jim Thome likely to be an every-game starter.
Using Morneau in this limited role would prevent him from having his rust exposed in the field and would set the stage for some unbelievable October dramatics. It might not be very likely, but right now I'd say it's the best shot we've got at seeing Morneau again this year.