Playoff Preview: Yankees – Twins

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
New York          101     61     .623     897     808     90-72
Minnesota          92     70     .568     780     715     89-73
 
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
New York           5.54     .268     .353     .458     281     242     670      982
Minnesota          4.81     .266     .332     .431     310     191     513      982
 
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
New York           4.99     .271     .328     .432     304     182     445     1058
Minnesota          4.41     .267     .323     .406     247     167     431     1123

The New York Yankees own the Minnesota Twins, there’s just no way around that fact. When the Twins took two out of three from the Yankees in a series at the Metrodome earlier this year, it gave the Twins and their fans a little hope that New York’s dominance over them was over. Then the Yankees went and swept the Twins in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium last week and put an end to that talk.

After nearly a decade of being one of the worst teams in the American League following their 1991 World Series title, the Twins returned to having a quality team in 2001, going 85-77 to finish in second place in the AL Central, and have since won three straight division titles. Over that four-year stretch in which they won 85, 94, 90 and 92 games for a combined winning percentage of .558, the Twins have gone 7-22 against the Yankees, including 3-20 over the last three years.

Whether you want to go by their overall records, the head-to-head results, or each team’s recent postseason success, the Twins are clearly an inferior team to the Yankees. New York wins more often while playing in a vastly superior division, they beat up on the Twins nearly every time they play, and they not only have a long history of winning in October, they actually knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs last season.

Still, in previewing this series there are a lot of things I could look at to give the sense that the Twins can win. Minnesota is likely the better defensive team, particularly in the outfield, and they allowed the fewest runs in the league this season. And while they ranked just 10th in the AL in runs scored and produced less offense than every other playoff team except for the Dodgers, the Twins did pick it up in second half once they got Justin Morneau into the lineup and Shannon Stewart healthy, ranking fifth in the league in post-break OPS.

Want more? The Yankees’ pitching has been pretty bad since the All-Star break, as their 4.95 second-half ERA ranks 11th in the AL. Kevin Brown and Orlando Hernandez have some injury questions, Javier Vazquez has been so awful in the second half (6.92 ERA in 14 starts) that he may not even be in the playoff rotation, and Jon Lieber and his .301 opponent’s batting average are getting the start in Game 2. Plus, while Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon have been extremely strong throughout the year, Paul Quantrill appears to have hit the wall, with a 7.09 ERA in 39.1 innings since the break.

More? One of the Yankees’ best players, Jason Giambi, is 4-for-33 with 13 strikeouts since returning to the team in September and will reportedly be left off the playoff roster for the first round. Meanwhile, the Twins have gotten a boost from young second-half additions like Jason Kubel (.300/.358/.433 in 23 games), Jesse Crain (3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings) and the aforementioned Morneau, who hit .271/.340/.536 with 19 homers, 17 doubles and 58 RBIs in just 74 games.

I could talk about a lot of this different stuff and say that maybe, if things go right and those things all come into play, the Twins could take advantage and win the series. In reality, however, all of it matters little in this series. For the Twins to win, they absolutely must have Johan Santana and Brad Radke pitch as well as they have all season and be as sharp as they have shown they can be. Without that happening, nothing else matters. Without that happening, the Twins have no chance to win the series.

That’s a lot more simplistic than a guy who enjoys writing about baseball using numbers would like to present in a playoff preview, but I honestly believe it’s the case. If Santana is the pitcher who didn’t lose in the second half and had a sub-2.00 ERA since the start of June, and Radke performs like one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the league, the Twins will win this series. They will scratch out some runs, they will play good defense, and their bullpen will hold leads when Santana and Radke hand them over.

If they don’t — if Santana is merely good and Radke is more like the good-but-not-great pitcher he’s been for most of his career — the Yankees will score enough runs to make life miserable for a Twins team that has had trouble offensively all year and Rivera will further shut things down in the late innings. The potential equation for a Minnesota win in this series is so simple that this preview probably could have contained just one sentence: If Santana and Radke come up big, Minnesota wins.

The question, of course, is will they? If you want to look at it objectively, to use this year’s performance and important stats to come up with an answer, you’ll find that, yes, they will come up big. Santana was 18-3 with a 1.50 ERA since the start of June, 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA in the second half, and 5-0 with an 0.26 ERA in September. If you look at those numbers and think about how incredibly dominant Santana has been nearly all season, there is no way he can lose.

Radke was second in the AL to Santana in Quality Starts (24), third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.5-to-1) and opponent’s on-base percentage (.290), fourth in ERA (3.48) and DIPS ERA (3.66), and eighth in opponent’s slugging percentage (.393). And he’s been particularly good of late, going 6-3 with a 3.49 ERA since the All-Star break and 2-1 with a 1.97 ERA in September. Those aren’t numbers that make you say “there is no way he can lose,” but certainly you’ve got to like his chances.

But — and there had to be a but — the fact that Santana hasn’t lost in months and Radke has been great all year does not, in itself, actually help them any come playoff time. The Yankees win in October, that’s just what they do. Should Santana suddenly turn into a mere mortal or Radke into the guy who came into this year with a career ERA of 4.32, then the Twins will find themselves counting on Carlos Silva or, even worse, on their offense to actually out-hit the Yankees. And that simply will not happen.

Regardless of what you think of New York and regardless of how flawed a team you view them to be, they will win this series if Santana and Radke are anything less than their best. They’ll fight their way to scoring runs off Minnesota’s bullpen, they’ll come up with key hits and big home runs, and Rivera will slam the door when given the chance. The key, quite clearly, is not giving him the chance, and that all rests of the left arm of Santana and the right arm of Radke.

Their performances this year say they can do it. Their numbers this year say they can do it. Logic in the minds of many people all around baseball say they can do it. The only thing left for them is to actually do it, against Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. Against Mystique, Aura, and the Yankee Stadium crowd, against the dominance the Yankees have held over the Twins since they became a respectable team again, and against a ballclub that has been crushing the dreams of October underdogs for years.

So again, will they do it? Honestly, I don’t know. My gut says that they will, but years and years of being a pessimistic Minnesota sports fan says they won’t. Just the idea that there is some question or that it is a “coin flip” choice, when one team has 92 wins coming from the worst division in baseball and the other has 101 wins coming from one of the best, tells you just how great Santana and Radke have been and how far the Twins can go if they come up big.

I flipped the coin and decided that this might just be the time to show a little optimism, to dream a little bit, to say “why not?” and have a little faith. If you can’t rely on Santana, the best pitcher in baseball, someone you’ve been touting and writing about on a daily basis for years, and a guy who hasn’t had a bad game in nearly five months, who can you count on?

Maybe for once New York won’t get those big hits to fall and won’t bust open a game against a maddeningly shaky reliever as the clock strikes midnight in New York. Maybe Morneau shows off some of his power, Stewart shows off why Terry Ryan is a great GM and I’m not, and Torii Hunter talks the talk and walks the walk. Maybe Henry Blanco is a hero instead of whoever plans on playing the role of Luis Sojo in the Bronx this year, maybe Santana and Radke each go eight strong and hand things over to Joe Nathan, and maybe Nathan slams the door just like Rivera would have, if only he wasn’t stuck in the bullpen.

Maybe.

Twins in five.

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