The Twins battled their way to 94 wins this season, ensuring themselves home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That figured to factor heavily for a club that finished with a historically strong home record this season.
Unfortunately, the Twins have dropped both of the first two games of this ALDS at Target Field, so they now must climb a very steep hill in order to avoid another first-round exit from the postseason.
It begins tonight at Yankee Stadium. A series victory seems like a real long shot at this point, but fans could at least take solace in one Twins win to snap the team's long postseason drought and provide a single success for a franchise that has experienced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs over the past eight years.
The pitching match-up, as you'll see below, is not all that daunting. It would also seem as though the Twins almost have to break through offensively -- they went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position over the first two games; how long can that last? We can talk all we want about how the Twins shrivel in the playoffs and cower to the Yankees, but at the end of the day this is a baseball team with a lot of talent and these guys can't just keep failing forever.
Something's gotta give. Maybe that starts to happen tonight. It's the only thing that can save the Twins now.
On to pitching match-ups (skipping key players today because I'm lazy and dejected)...
Brian Duensing | 130.2 IP, 10-3, 1.62 ERA, 78/35 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP
Duensing has done everything this organization has asked of him. For years he toiled away in the Twins' farm system, consistently posting solid results while blocked by more advanced pitching prospects. He got his chance to debut as a major-leaguer last year, at age 25, but it was initially in a relief role rather than the starting role he'd filled throughout his professional career. Duensing adapted well, got his chance to join the rotation in August and ran with it, going 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA in eight starts down the stretch to help propel the Twins to an unlikely postseason berth. There, Duensing drew about the toughest assignment a rookie pitcher could get -- starting Game 1 of a playoff series in Yankee Stadium -- but the lefty held his own and gave the Twins a chance to win.
This spring, Duensing was once again nudged to the bullpen by an overly crowded rotation. He once again adapted well, becoming the team's best left-handed reliever, and when Nick Blackburn earned his way out of the Twins rotaiton Duensing got another chance to join it. Once again, he ran with the opportunity. In 13 starts since joining the rotation in late July, Duensing has gone 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA.
The Twins will have to hope that success can carry forward, as tonight they make their most desperate plea to Duensing yet: save our season. Will the left-hander be up to the task?
Phil Hughes | 176.1 IP, 18-8, 4.19 ERA, 146/58 K/BB, 1.24 WHIP
Opposing Duensing will be a pitcher with one of the most misleading win/loss records in baseball. Hughes' 18-8 mark would have you believe he was one of the best pitchers in the league but the truth is that the Yankees' No. 3 starter finished with merely decent numbers across the board, and by the end of the season he wasn't viewed by any team as a particularly tough draw.
When we last saw Hughes in October, he was serving as a setup man out of the Yankees bullpen. It was a role that suited the young right-hander well; he stepped up his velocity in shortened outings and managed a 3.03 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while pitching mostly as a reliever last year, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, New York has transitioned Hughes into a full-time starting role and as a result his performance has declined.
That wasn't the case right off the bat. In April and May, Hughes jumped out to a 6-1 start while posting a 2.70 ERA and averaging over a strikeout per inning. In June, he managed to go 4-1 despite a 5.17 ERA. He went on to run up a 4.67 ERA over the final three months of the season, surrendering 17 home runs over 88 innings while notching only 65 strikeouts.
The drop-off in dominance suggests that either Hughes has not responded well to the rigors of a full season in a major-league rotation or the league has adapted to him with increased exposure. Either way, it leaves him vulnerable and beatable. He's not a bad pitcher by any means, but he's not the dominant force he was throughout the minors or in the Yankees bullpen last year.