Tonight, the Twins and Yankees will commence yet another ALDS face-off. It will mark the fourth time in eight years the two have matched up in the opening round of the playoffs -- same old story, right?
Except, this really isn't the same old story. Each of the past three postseason meetings between these two clubs has resulted in the same outcome -- a relatively comfortable series victory for the Yankees and a disappointing end to the Twins' season. Yet, none of those outcomes should have been particularly surprising, because in each case the Yankees were heavy favorites and clearly the superior team.
Never have the Twins been more disadvantaged than they were last year. They crept into the playoffs after an exciting but exhausting run in the final weeks of the regular-season, capped by a 12-inning marathon victory in Game 163. Emotionally and physically drained, the 88-win Twins traveled to Yankee Stadium to face the well-rested No. 1 seed in the American League.
In my preview of that series, I was appropriately pessimistic, listing the Twins' numerous shortcomings and concluding: "It's tough to imagine the Twins taking this series. In fact, it's pretty tough to imagine them even taking a game." Sure enough, they did not, but that should have come as no surprise and by no means should it have been viewed as some colossal failure on the part of Ron Gardenhire's club.
Similar circumstances have faced Gardy's Twins in each of their past ALDS match-ups with New York. As I mentioned earlier this week, on every occasion the Twins entered the playoffs with the worst record of any playoff qualifier in the American League, while the Yankees have been the league's No. 1 seed with over 100 regular-season wins. This year, for the first time, the Twins hold home field advantage and -- thanks largely to a substantial boost in payroll -- they actually match up pretty evenly with the Bronx Bombers.
Now, that's not to say that this series should be viewed as a cakewalk. The Yankees are a very good team that won 95 games in baseball's toughest division. They led the AL in runs scored, ranked second in OPS and third in homers. They have the game's best closer. Their Game 1 (and probable Game 4) starter is a top Cy Young candidate. As much as the Twins can claim to match up better than ever with the Yankees on paper, they still went 2-4 against them in the regular season after going 0-10 overall last year.
These Twins have much to prove. And winning Game 1 tonight is absolutely vital. Not only does it put Minnesota in the driver's seat -- costing the Yankees one of their two CC Sabathia starts and forcing them to win three of the final four games to move on -- but it helps address a stigma that has followed this team from the Metrodome to Target Field.
I don't doubt that the Twins believe they can beat the Yankees in a series, but let's be honest... they haven't done it in a long time.
Now, to break down tonight's pitching match-up and highlight one key player for each side:
CC Sabathia | 237.2 IP, 21-7, 3.18 ERA, 197/74 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP
Because he won 21 games this season while being backed by the league's best offense, there's a pretty good chance that Sabathia will capture the AL Cy Young Award for a second time in six years. That honor would be undeserved -- for reasons I detailed a few weeks ago -- but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation as one of the league's finest pitchers.
Sabathia excels in just about every aspect of the game. He's almost equally tough on lefties and righties. He boasts a solid strikeout rate and limits walks, hits and home runs. He's a big-framed workhorse who threw 110 or more pitches in 19 starts this season (his opponent in tonight's game surpassed the 110-pitch mark twice). He seemingly faltered a bit late in the year, posting a 4.11 ERA over his final five starts, but mixed into that stretch were dominant road outings against the Rays and Blue Jays.
If the way Sabathia pitched all season, or the way he pitched for the Yankees in the postseason last year, are any indication, the Twins are not going to be scoring much against the hefty lefty this evening. And since Sabathia routinely completes seven or more innings, the Twins won't be able to rely on mounting their attack against the Yankees bullpen. In order to win, the Twins will need to try and scrape a few runs across against Sabathia and hope for a strong outing from their own guy...
Francisco Liriano | 191.2 IP, 14-10, 3.62 ERA, 201/58 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP
Liriano's stats looked a whole lot better halfway through September, when he was 14-7 with a 3.28 ERA, but he took a loss in each of his final three starts while allowing 12 runs on 17 hits -- five homers -- in 13 1/3 innings.
In spite of the uninspiring finish, Liriano was still one of the most dominating pitchers in the league this year. He was one of only five AL hurlers to notch over 200 strikeouts, posted an elite 53.6 percent ground ball rate and was better at keeping the ball in the park than any other starting pitcher in the majors. Those traits should play well against a Yankee offense that was heavy on homers and hit just .263/.343/.394 against ground ball pitchers. Basically, if Liriano is on top of his game, he can neutralize the strengths of this New York lineup.
The question, of course, is whether or not Liriano will be on top of his game. As mentioned before, he's not pitched well in any of his past three starts, and the fact that his historically fragile arm has now logged over 250 innings this year between the regular season, spring training and winter ball is somewhat worrisome. He also has little experience performing on this type of stage and some believe he gets overly jacked up when pitching in big spots.
Regardless of those factors, Liriano is the guy the Twins want on the mound tonight at Target Field, where he was a significantly better pitcher than on the road this season. If he can come through with a strong performance, he can help dispel two lingering myths -- that he shrivels in the spotlight, and that the Twins can't beat the Yankees.
KEY PLAYER -- YANKEES: Mark Teixeira, 1B
Liriano didn't allow a lot of home runs this year, but when he did, it usually didn't end well. In Liriano's seven starts that resulted in a loss, he allowed seven home runs. In his 21 starts that resulted in a win or no-decision, he allowed two. For a second straight year, Teixeira was New York's top home run hitter, going deep 33 times. As I mentioned in yesterday's Scouting the Enemy piece, the switch-hitting first baseman was also much more dangerous when swinging from the right side, and Liriano gave up all nine of his homers this year to right-handed batters.
KEY PLAYER -- TWINS: Delmon Young, LF
When the Twins have lost in the playoffs, it's been because they haven't scored. They'll have a tough time bucking that trend against Sabathia tonight, but one player who could play a big role is Young, their best hitter from the right side. Young had a breakout campaign, launching 20 homers and driving in 112 runs, and he'll be batting from the clean-up spot tonight. If he can keep his bat hot like it was in the final weeks of the regular season, he could be the difference-maker in the Twins lineup.