The Yankees finished off a dominating sweep of the Twins at Yankee Stadium Wednesday, all but punching their ticket to the playoffs. With 10 games left, the Twins are trying to hold off the Angels to claim the second wild card spot and get back to New York (or possibly Boston) for the wild card game. As of Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota holds a tenuous 1 game lead over Anaheim for the second spot.
The sweep in New York was disappointing, with the Twins not playing particularly good baseball in a huge series against an opponent that’s tormented them for a decade and a half. If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, though, Twins fans should be excited about what lies ahead over the next week and a half.
The Twins are playing high stakes, critical games in late September as they try to claw their way into the postseason. I’d venture to guess that most fans would have taken that in spring training, and certainly at the trade deadline. So, as you’ve been forced to do so many times before, put a demoralizing Yankees series behind you and look ahead to what comes next.
With that in mind, here are five keys to taking at least 3 out of 4 from a depleted Tigers team that’s mostly just playing out the string.
1. Keep Adalberto Mejia on a short leash Thursday against the lefty-mashing Tigers
Detroit’s offense is middle-of-the-pack in the American League this year, but they absolutely mash left-handed pitching. Detroit has an .852 OPS against lefties this year, which is far-and-away the best in the American League. Those numbers suggest Thursday’s starter, Adalberto Mejia, could be in for a long day, and it’s incumbent on the Twins to make sure that day isn’t too long if he runs into trouble.
Given the plethora of right-handed relief options out of the pen, it makes sense to manage Thursday’s game similarly to a playoff game. If the Tigers jump on Mejia early, pulling him fairly quickly and patching together the game with a combination of right-handed long-relievers (Slegers, Gee) and one-inning guys (Hildenberger, Busenitz, Pressly, Belisle et al.) might be the best approach to keeping Detroit’s offense at bay. Bartolo Colon’s short start Wednesday does make that a bit more difficult, though.
2. Prioritize outfield defense
Detroit’s park is huge, which is an advantage for a Twins team that boasts the top outfield defense in the majors. That defense takes a step back, though, when Ehire Adrianza starts in place of Max Kepler against lefties. I think Adrianza’s handled himself well in the outfield, but Kepler’s certainly the superior defensive outfielder. Having his glove out there in a large park may be worth any potential downgrade offensively against left-handed pitching.
(One note here: It’s a bit of a tough break for the Twins that Bartolo Colon started Wednesday in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium and not Comerica Park in Detroit. Colon gives up a ton of hard contact and fly ball outs, and I wonder if he would have fared a bit better with the spacious outfield in Detroit.)
3. Cut back on the late-inning bunting
Before I become the millionth person to weigh in on all the sac bunting, I’ll say this: I think Paul Molitor is a good manager who does a lot behind the scenes to improve the ballclub, and those things sometimes don’t get taken into account in evaluations of his performance. This can be expanded on in another article, but to keep it short, I think he deserves quite a bit of credit for taking a team with a poor pitching staff that sold at the deadline to the brink of the playoffs.
That said, I’m pretty much anti-bunt (especially sac bunt), and I think he bunts too much. Further, if you *are* going to sac bunt, some spots are better to do it than others, and I don’t think he always picks good spots.
Monday’s game is a good example. Down 2-1 in the eigth, the Twins were facing Dellin Betances. Betances has had major control problems all year (6.8 BB/9), and hit Robbie Grossman with the first pitch of the inning, before falling behind Zack Granite. In my opinion, you have to make Betances prove he can throw strikes before giving away an out in a game you’re losing. After Granite sac bunted, Betances walked Brian Dozier and Max Kepler before exiting. I have no idea how that inning would have played out had Molitor not bunted there, but I do think it’s poor process. I also think it’s poor process to bunt over a slow runner (Joe Mauer) who may not score on a hit to the outfield with your number three hitter, as he’s done a number of times.
4. Get the offense rolling again against bad starting pitching
It’s hard to knock the Twins too much offensively, because they’ve had one of the best offenses in baseball in the second half. They erupted for 13 runs on Sunday against Toronto, but have otherwise had poor offensive showings while losing five of their last six. Here are their run totals in those five losses: 3, 2, 1, 2, 3. That comes out to just 2.2 runs/game. Now, I’m admittedly cherry-picking here, in a) discounting their 13 run outburst Sunday, and b) looking at a tiny sample size in what’s been a fantastic second half overall. But I think it’s fair to say the offense has been scuffling a bit over the last week, and that can’t happen against a Detroit team that’s traded away their best starter (Justin Verlander) and reliever (Justin Wilson).
While the Twins faced strong starting pitching in New York, that won’t be the case in Detroit. Here’s who’s lined up to pitch for the Tigers, according to ESPN.com:
Jordan Zimmerman: 6.18 ERA, 1.58 WHIP
Mathew Boyd: 5.33 ERA, 1.57 WHIP
Buck Farmer: 7.11 ERA, 1.47 WHIP
Chad Bell: 6.52 ERA, 1.81 WHIP
The Twins couldn’t ask for better pitching matchups in this series, and quite simply, they need to take advantage and put up runs against a bad Tigers pitching staff. Now, there’s one caveat to that: Mathew Boyd and Chad Bell are left-handed, which leads into my last key:
5. Figure out the Tigers’ (mediocre) left-handed pitching
The Twins haven’t fared particularly well against left-handed pitching all season, and that was on full display in New York. Jaime Garcia and C.C. Sabathia shut down the Twins, racking up strikeouts and getting the Twins to chase out of the zone. Over the weekend, the Twins will face Boyd and Bell, two mediocre left-handed starters.
The Twins have a lineup that isn’t conducive to hitting left-handed pitching, particularly with Miguel Sano out. Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Robbie Grossman and Eduardo Escobar all have better numbers against RHP than LHP. Kepler, in particular, has struggled mightily against lefties, with Paul Molitor choosing to mostly bench him against southpaws. Kepler, though, homered off C.C. Sabathia in Tuesday night’s game, his first against a lefty this season. I’d venture to guess that home run bought Kepler at least one start against either Boyd or Bell, and perhaps helped his confidence a bit in the process. Regardless, if the Twins are intent on winning the series, they’re going to have to put together good at bats against Detroit’s southpaws.