Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Will Fear No Evil

ALDS Preview

Obviously, since Ron Gardenhire took over as Twins manager in 2002, things haven't gone well against the Yankees. That's history. Nothing can change it. Let it go. This time can be different. Why?

These aren't the Twins of years past.

When the Yankees swept the Twins in the ALDS last year, the bottom of the Twins' lineup in each game featured some combination of Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Jose Morales, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto. The 2004 team that lost 3 straight to the Yankees fielded lineups that featured Lew Ford and Henry Blanco. These are bench players. This year's team will finish the lineup with Jason Kubel, Danny Valencia and JJ Hardy. Every hitter has some combination of ROTY votes*, MVP votes or All-Star appearances on their resume. Bona fide starters 1-9.

*Valencia looks like a good bet to finish in the top 3 this year.

These are the Yankees of years past.

They've been here before. Many, many times. Because they're old. Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman are all north of 34. All but Rivera showed it this year, either by missing significant time due to injuries, or by showing declines in production, or both. In previous postseason match-ups the Yankees' core players were in their prime. Now they're well past it.

The earlier series were closer than you think.

The Twins are 2-9 against the Yankees in the postseason. But 3 of those losses came in extra innings. In 3 of the other losses the Twins held the Yankees to 4 or fewer runs. If Cory Koskie's double off Rivera late in game 2 of 2004 had stayed in play rather than bouncing into the stands, the Twins would have come home leading the series 2-0. If Gomez and Punto had been under control on the basepaths last fall, the Twins would have been dead even with the Yanks going into the 9th inning of game 3: series tied at 1, score tied at 2. Even while being badly overmatched from a personnel standpoint, which isn't the case this year.

The Twins are due.

Whether good or bad, streaks don't last forever. The Twins have lost 9 straight postseason games, and 5 straight series. Those streaks have been sustained by teams that came soaring into the 2006 and 2009 postseason on tremendous rolls. They were due to have letdowns. No such trouble this year, as the Twins enter the postseason in a 2-8 malaise. Each of the starters in the postseason rotation, most of the position players and a couple of the key bullpen pitchers have had at least one crappy game in the last 2 weeks. That's good. Everybody has a bad game now and then. Better to get it out of the way in meaningless games against the Tigers and Royals than on the big stage against the Yanks.

It can be done. Here are my keys to making it happen:

1. First Inning, Game 1

The Twins and their fans are carrying a lot of baggage into this series. The players will be more relaxed and the crowd livelier if things get off to a good start. Francisco Liriano has had some early-inning troubles this season. He did not end the regular season on a good note. He needs to have a scoreless 1st inning on Wednesday night. If it's a dominant inning, 1-2-3 with a K on 10 pitches, for example, that's even better.

Since the A lineup was first assembled in Fort Myers, they've been ambushing opposing pitchers in the 1st inning. Some real good ones, including John Danks, Zach Greinke and Felix Hernandez. No reason they can't jump on CC Sabathia, too. An early crooked number would go a long way toward making everyone believe that the Twins can prevail.

2. Michael Must Mash

The Yankees intend to use Sabathia in games 1 & 4 and Pettitte in games 2 & 5. That means that the Twins will be seeing LHP in about 2/3 of 4/5 of the games. This will largely neutralize Joe Mauer (.711 OPS) Jim Thome (.769) and Jason Kubel (.655). That means the righties in the lineup will have to pick up the slack. Delmon Young and Valencia have been doing it for most of the summer. The guy who's been missing lately is Michael Cuddyer. His OPS barely cleared .700 over the final 2 months of the season. However, vs. LHP, he raked at .896 in 2010. He's got to do that vs. Sabathia and Pettitte. If not more.

3. Don't Give Them Anything

The Yankees are very good at scoring runs, but they're actually only a little better than average at hitting. They are exceptionally good at taking walks. The Twins are exceptionally good at not giving up walks. Something's got to give there, and that matchup needs to fall the Twins' way. But it goes for more than walks. No HBP. No extra outs coming from errors. And don't give away any outs on the basepaths, either. This series is going to be tough enough if the Twins play flawlessly.

No more hype. Time to play the games.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

10th Split: 7-10

Overall Record: 94-68
AL Central Champions by 6 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 7-10, 7-9, 13-3, 10-6, 13-3

The Twins maintained their searing 2nd half pace through the first 7 games of this split, going 5-2. Over that week, the White Sox lost another 6 straight games, and the division was clinched with rather shocking quickness at the end of September 21st, about 4 days earlier than I expected. It seems that after the Twins' emphatic sweep of the Sox in their home park (9-3, 9-3, 8-5), Ozzie's boys decided to get busy dying.

As the 1st team in the Majors to clinch, and with 2 full weeks before the start of the playoffs, the Twins had the luxury of resting their ailing regulars. Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and JJ Hardy missed virtually all of the season's final road trip. As for the bench guys and September call-ups who filled in for them, well... there's a reason those guys aren't big league starters. The offense sputtered over the final 10 games, scoring 3 or fewer runs 6 times.

Less understandably, the pitching staff mailed it in as well. Francisco Liriano lost his last 3 starts, surrendering more HR (5) in those games than he had in the previous 5 1/2 months (4). Each of the other members of the rotation delivered at least one clunker. That led to lots of opportunities for Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship and Alex Burnett in middle relief. Again, each of them showed why they spent much of the season in the minors, and why their numbers at Rochester weren't that great. The pitching staff coughed up 5 or more R in 7 of the last 10 games.

The defense continued its 2nd half trend of being ordinary at best. The Twins committed 15 errors, remarkably resulting in just 3 unearned runs. The unearned run season total of 33 was the best in the AL (50 seems to be about average). The final fielding percentage numbers were 2nd only to the Yankees.

Speaking of whom, the Twins are going to get a chance to avenge last year's postseason sweep. I hope to have time to address the series in depth before Wednesday night. Suffice it to say, the circumstances are a lot different this time around: the Twins are 8 wins better than 2009 (through 162 games), the Yankees are 8 wins worse. The Twins are rested. They have their rotation set. They have excellent depth in the bullpen. The batting order will end with Danny Valencia and Hardy instead of Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto. And the first 2 games will be at home.

Time to shine, fellas.

Bold prediction: Twins in 4.