Well, ain't that a punch in the gut?
The Twins spent over $100 million on payroll this year. They played well enough over the regular season to earn home field advantage in the first round. They got to CC Sabathia early for three runs and Francisco Liriano was locked in over the first five innings.
The Twins still couldn't get it done. They dropped Game 1 by a score of 6-4, putting them in a position where they will need to win three of the final four games in this series to move on. With two of those games to be played in New York and one of them to be pitched by Sabathia, it's a tall order. But my initial prediction for this series was Twins in five, with Liriano losing in Game 1 and winning in Game 5, so I'll have to try and optimistically cling to it.
On the bright side, the Twins now move into the more questionable portion of the Yankees rotation. Tonight they will get Andy Pettitte (profiled below) and on Saturday in Yankee Stadium it will be Phil Hughes, who's been no world-beater since the All-Star break and will finally give the Twins a break from their steady diet of left-handed pitching in this series.
Rest assured, this series is still winnable. But it starts with tonight's game -- one that the Twins simply cannot allow to get away from them. They've already surrendered home field advantage by dropping last night's contest, but with a victory tonight and a split in New York they can force the series back to Minnesota for Game 5. Realistically, that should be their goal at this point.
The term "must-win game" tends to get overused. It only truly applies in elimination games, and in those cases the necessity of a victory is obvious and needs not be stated. The Twins could conceivably lose tonight, win the final three games of the series and move on. But I don't think anyone believes that's going to happen.
The Twins have got to find a way to hold onto a lead tonight and leave Minneapolis with a split. If not, they'll be heading to Yankee Stadium staring down the barrel of yet another first-round sweep.
A look at tonight's starting pitchers and key players...
Andy Pettitte | 129 IP, 11-3, 3.28 ERA, 101/41 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP
When Pettitte made his first postseason start for the Yankees, Joe Mauer was 12. The southpaw represents one of the last remaining links to the dynastic New York teams of the late '90s, and at the age of 38 he's still going strong, as demonstrated by the strong numbers posted above.
It might be difficult for Twins fans to view Pettitte as a weakness for the Yanks. After all, he's gone 11-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 21 career regular-season match-ups against the hometown nine, including a dominant eight-inning victory at Target Field back in May. His numbers this year were outstanding, with an ERA and WHIP that stand as his best since 2005.
Yet, what you don't see from one glance at those shiny numbers is that they were all accumulated during the first half of the season. Since the All-Star break, Pettitte has made only four starts, and he's pitched into the sixth inning in only one of them. He hasn't thrown more than 88 pitches in a game since July 8th. That fact makes it rather unlikely that Pettitte pitches particularly deep into tonight's game, so even if the left-hander is effective there's a good chance that the Twins will get a more extended look at the New York bullpen. While we saw last night that New York boasts some dominant arms in the back end between Mariano Rivera and Kerry Wood, it is in the lower levels of the relief corps that their weaknesses lie.
It's probably not fair to expect a hit parade against Pettitte tonight. The guy's postseason track record is daunting -- he's made 40 starts and gone 18-9 with a 3.90 ERA, numbers that are extremely impressive when you consider that he's routinely been facing the best teams in the league in the most pressure-packed environments. Pettitte also proved over the first half this year that, despite his age, he's not lost much when he's healthy. But he hasn't really been healthy for three months, and that is where the Twins' advantage lies.
Get after Pettitte early, make him uncomfortable, force a lot of pitches, and make the Yankees rely on their bullpen to chip in several innings. This will be the Twins' recipe for success this evening.
Carl Pavano | 229 IP, 17-11, 3.75 ERA, 117/37 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP
Pavano's history with the Yankees is well documented. After an 18-win season with the Marlins in 2004, the right-hander signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Yankees and -- due to perpetual injury problems -- ended up pitching only 145 innings (with a 5.00 ERA) over the life of the contract. His name became a running joke in the Bronx and he is now so reviled by New York fans that he'd probably need to wear a bullet-proof vest if he was pitching in Yankee Stadium tonight.
Given this history, Pavano undoubtedly would have taken some extra satisfaction out of defeating the Yankees in last year's ALDS. Certainly, he pitched well enough to do so, allowing only two solo home runs over seven innings at the Metrodome, but unfortunately the Twins offense came up short against Pettitte and Pavano's strong outing was wasted as the Yankees completed their sweep.
Tonight, Pavano will get another chance to beat the Yankees, and he'll do it with a much stronger lineup backing him against a much more vulnerable version of Pettitte. Pavano differs from Liriano in that he's not by any means a strikeout pitcher -- in fact, he finished the season with a paltry 4.8 K/9IP rate and fanned only 10 of the 143 batters he faced in September. Allowing that type of contact against the Yankees' powerful lineup can be dangerous, and if that lineup starts putting baserunners on they're liable to terrorize Pavano, who was one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run against this year.
The way Pavano pitched against the Yankees last October sparks hope that he can step up and shut down their powerful lineup again this year. If his command is sharp and he's able to keep hitters off-balance by changing speeds and working the edges of the strike zone, he can find success.
KEY PLAYER -- YANKEES: Brett Gardner, LF
Gardner is very tough to keep off the base paths; he's a patient hitter who drew 79 walks this season and he's not easy to strike out. He was especially pesky against right-handed starters, against whom he hit .307 with a .402 on-base percentage. Gardner was the Yankees' leading base-stealer this season, swiping 47 bags on 55 attempts. If he gets on base, there's little doubt he'll be running, and that's where things can start to spin out of control for Pavano and the Twins.
KEY PLAYER -- TWINS: Joe Mauer, C
Pavano's ineffectiveness at holding runners will put additional pressure on Mauer defensively. The catcher will need to deliver perfect throws in order to gun down base-stealers. In addition, Mauer has got to step up offensively. He's the Twins' No. 3 hitter and best player -- a guy they absolutely need to produce in order to get past the Yankees. Last night's pedestrian 1-for-5 effort with two strikeouts simply isn't going to cut it. Sabathia was a tough match-up for Mauer, but so is Pettitte tonight. Great players step up in situations like this, regardless of who they're facing.