ALDS Preview: Bullpen battle will be a major key
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- In theory, the New York Yankees own the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins are 18-54 against the Yankees under manager Ron Gardenhire.
That record includes a 2-9 mark in three American League Division Series match-ups -- the last of which resulted in a three-game sweep in 2009 that officially shut down the Metrodome.
In fact, Bodog actually lists "Yankees in four" as the most likely scenario for this upcoming series.
But with a new cast of characters, a deeper roster, and what projects to be a raucous Target Field atmosphere, the Twins have a golden opportunity to exorcise Yankee demons this weekend.
Game 1 (Target Field): Wednesday, 7:37 p.m.
Probable starters: RHP Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62) vs. LHP C.C. Sabathia (21-7, 3.18)
Game 2 (Target Field): Thursday, 5:07 p.m.
Probable starters: RHP Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75) vs. LHP Andy Pettitte (11-3, 3.28)
Game 3 (Yankee Stadium): Saturday, 7:37 p.m.
Probable starters: LHP Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62) vs. RHP Phil Hughes (18-8, 4.19)
Game 4, if necessary (Yankee Stadium): Sunday, Oct. 10, 7:07 p.m.
Probable starters: RHP Nick Blackburn (10-12, 5.42) vs. Sabathia
Game 5, if necessary (Target Field): Tuesday, Oct. 12, TBD
Probable starters: Liriano vs. Pettitte
* All times central
Tale of the tape
The Yankees head into the postseason with the most productive offense in baseball -- a unit that led the majors in runs per game (5.3), OBP (.350) and weighted on-base average (.347). They also ranked second in OPS (.786), third in HRs (201), and second in walk rate (10.4% of plate appearances).
Ironically, however, Derek Jeter (.270/.340/.370 with 10 HRs, 84 "runs created," and a league-leading 66% groundball rate) and Alex Rodriguez (.270/.341/.506 with 30 HRs and 88 "runs created") had the worst regular seasons of their respective careers.
But still, we're talking about Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter here. Jeter, specifically, at age 36, may be headed into the twilight of his career, but his plate discipline and experience do count for something.
From a speed standpoint, Brett Gardner led the team with 47 stolen bases, and Jeter (18) and Curtis Granderson (12) will run from time to time, but the Yankees won't be nearly as pesky on the bases as, say, the Tampa Bay Rays.
As for the Twins, getting healthy was the top priority over the last two weeks, and by putting the 'A' lineup on the field for Sunday's season finale against Toronto, they appear to have healed everybody up enough to roll into the postseason.
For the season, the Twins averaged 4.8 runs per game, but that number jumped to 5.0 runs per game, believe it or not, after Justin Morneau's concussion.
With everybody healthy, the Twins really have no true weak links in the lineup, but platoon splits certainly allow Yankee left-handers (Sabathia and Pettitte) to neutralize guys like Jason Kubel (.225/.311/.344 vs. lefties) and Jim Thome (.241/.298/.471).
Perhaps the biggest key(s) to the Twins offense is how often Denard Span (.264/.331/.348, 76 "runs created") and Orlando Hudson (.268/.338/.372, 64 "runs created") can reach base. Both men are having down seasons by their standards, but when they are swinging well and drawing walks they set the table for Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Kubel and Thome.
The Yankees have a better offense. But the Twins have one of the best offenses in baseball as well. The gap isn't wide.
Beyond Sabathia, who is one of the best pitchers in the American League, the Yankees starting rotation has several questions marks. One of those question marks, A.J. Burnett, was reportedly told he will not be starting Game 4. Instead, the Yankees will likely come back with Sabathia on short rest.
Game 2 starter Pettitte has a solid -- but in many cases over-romanticized -- playoff track record, however he has struggled since coming off the disabled list with a strained groin. Pettitte pitched six solid innings against Baltimore on September 18, but he was rocked for nine earned runs and 19 hits in 7 1/3 innings over his final two starts of the season.
Game 3 starter Hughes has been solid for most of the season, but in September/October he posted a 4.67 ERA and allowed six home runs in just 27 innings. Not to mention, Hughes hasn't thrown seven innings in a game since July 9.
Regardless of Pettitte and Hughes' struggles, however, the Yankees' strategy of throwing four lefties in five games at the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup is a wise strategy.
The Twins will need Game 1 starter Liriano to remain calm under the bright spotlight, even if it means multiple visits by pitching coach Rick Anderson. Gardenhire said Liriano will not be on a restricted pitch count, and the team hopes he will eat innings.
Liriano finished the season with the third-best FIP in the majors (2.66), which suggests he was much more dominant over the course of the season than many people give him credit for.
Pavano has faced the Yankees twice in the postseason in his career -- Game 4 of the 2003 World Series (8 IP, 1 ER, 7 H, 0 BB, 4 K) and Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS (7 IP, 2 ER, 5 H, 0 BB, 9 K).
Duensing, who started and lost Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS against the Yankees, has walked 12 batters over his last three outings, which is more walks than he issued in his previous eight starts combined. He'll need to fix the control issues against one of the most patient, professional lineups in baseball.
Blackburn had a hiccup against the Royals last week, but in eight starts since being recalled from Class-AAA Rochester on August 23 he has posted a 3.05 ERA with 31 strikeouts, 13 walks and five home runs allowed in 56 innings. Over that span, Blackburn has also induced more than 55% groundballs, which would put him among the league leaders if translated over the course of a full season.
The Twins will need Blackburn to induce those grounders in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium in Game 4, should they need it.
The Yankees have perhaps one of the most underrated bullpens of any playoff team, which is difficult to fathom considering the presence of Mariano Rivera.
But after Rivera, the Yankees have a strikeout-heavy 'pen that features Kerry Wood (10.73 K/9), Dave Robertson (10.42 K/9) and Joba Chamberlain (9.67 K/9). The lone lefty, Boone Logan (8.55 K/9) has a .192 batting average against vs. left-handed hitters.
The Yankees might pack more fire power and an elite closer, but the Twins have possibly the deepest and longest bullpen bridge among the eight playoff teams.
Prior to Jesse Crain allowing four runs to the Blue Jays over the weekend, the six-man bridge of Crain, Matt Guerrier, Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch and Jose Mijares posted a collective ERA of 1.91 in September with just two home runs allowed in 56 2/3 innings.
The consensus in the Twins clubhouse is that the bullpen could be the hidden key.
"This is the best bullpen I've been a part of," Fuentes said.
"There's just so much depth. When I got here they were already a really good bullpen, which is part of the reason I was surprised I came in. I was just really happy to be a part of that."
Regarding a six-man bridge, Fuentes added, "You shorten up the game big time. In the playoffs, that's a big deal. When you run into problems, there's a slew of guys you can choose from. If you get through the fifth, we can lock down the next four innings."
The Twins flirted with the idea of trading for a top-notch starting pitcher prior to the trade deadline. Instead, they turned their attention to closers Capps and Fuentes.
"(The front office) went and picked up Capps and Fuentes and Flores at the time, just because they realized that if we can get through five innings and we have some good arms, hopefully we can get through the rest of the game," Crain said. "I think that was a smart move by the organization."
Capps has never pitched in games of playoff magnitude, but since August 22 he has a 1.69 ERA with 12 strikeouts, four walks and zero home runs allowed in 16 innings.
Fuentes has plenty of experience in high-pressure playoff situations -- not all of it good. In Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS against the Yankees, he allowed a game-tying solo homer to Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the 11th. He also struggled in the 2007 World Series
But in 9 2/3 innings as a Twin, he has struck out eight, walked two, and has yet to allow a run.
Both teams rate pretty comparably, both with the eye test and according to Ultimate Zone Rating. But the Yankees likely have a slight edge, thanks mostly to Gardner's presence in left field.
The Yankees outfield will track down balls in the gap that the Twins likely won't.
This is not a homer pick. The Twins are legitimately good, and the Yankees are more flawed this year than in past meetings. It's simply the Twins' time.
Twins in five.