Solid Twins hope to turn tables on Yanks
AL Central champs look primed to avenge past playoff losses
This is typically where Goliath tramples David.
But it could be argued that this time around, we're presented with a more muscular David, and a Goliath who is looking a little worn, a little iffy, maybe even a bit vulnerable.
There have been no feel-good stories for the classic underdog when the Minnesota Twins have met the New York Yankees in recent Division Series. Three times in the last seven years, including 2009, the Twins and Yankees have met in the postseason. The Yankees have emerged with three series victories and an overall record of 9-2.
This has been a dead end for the Twins, and it has probably deprived them of some of the substantial credit that should have been their due. This has been a role-model franchise, winning six division titles in the last nine seasons. Nobody in baseball in this new millennium got more out of limited financial resources than the Twins, but major success in the postseason eluded them, in large part because of the Yankees.
Now the Twins have moved into baseball's middle class with their splendid new ballpark, Target Field. Their revenues have increased and so have their chances. They have been able to find suitable ways to replace two of the game's premier talents; closer Joe Nathan and slugging first baseman Justin Morneau. Their rotation was solidified with the addition of lefty Brian Duensing. And, for the first time in these New York/Minnesota postseason meetings, the Twins will have home-field advantage.
On the other side of the issue, the Yankees are, of course, the defending World Series champions, and they are still baseball's richest, most powerful franchise. They're still the best offensive club in the game, too, leading the Majors in runs scored and on-base percentage. This is not only an imposing lineup, but a relentless lineup. The Yankees stage at-bats that are at once patient, selective and damaging, running up the opposition's pitch counts.
Still, the Yankees come to this postseason moment with questions attached. Last October -- and November -- they marched to their 27th World Series championship with a three-man rotation; CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte.
Sabathia is still Sabathia; reliable, tireless, reaching the 20-victory plateau and beyond for the first time in his career. But Burnett is having an inexplicable second half -- a 2.00 ERA in July, then 7.80 in August and 6.14 in September. Pettite, meanwhile, a completely proven postseason commodity, has had only three starts after coming back from a left groin injury. Maybe Phil Hughes can help, but this is far from where the 2009 Bronx Bombers were, with their rotation solidly in place and on form.
The Twins, on the other hand, have evolved beyond Ozzie Guillen's envious but not inaccurate description of "the little piranhas." This is no longer a small-ball offense, nipping incessantly at the opposition. The addition of Jim Thome at designated hitter has added considerably to the Twins' power, and Delmon Young's breakthrough season has increased their run production. Morneau, out since July after a concussion, has resumed workouts with the team, but even if he remains unavailable, this is the most impressive Minnesota lineup the Yankees will have seen in the postseason.
The traditional virtues of Twins teams in this decade have not slipped away. Pitching and defense? The Twins have the second-fewest errors in the American League, although the Yankees lead in that category. The Twins have a trio of starters who could carry them in the postseason -- Francisco Liriano, Duensing and, amazingly enough to the Yankees, Carl Pavano. Pavano was an injury waiting to happen with the Yankees, making 26 starts in four seasons. But with the Twins, he has been a model of consistency and a leader on the staff. He has produced the kind of numbers for the Twins that the Yankees once hoped they could get from him and now wish they could get from Burnett.
In total, the one thing that could not fairly be expected from this 2010 Division Series meeting between the Yankees and the Twins would be the typical outcome of the recent past -- a one-sided New York victory. The Twins have yet to prove that they can beat the Yankees in October, but here at least, they enter the postseason with what looks like their best opportunity.
HEAD TO HEAD
2010 Record:: Yankees 4-2 | Twins 2-4
Batting average:: Yankees .297 | Twins .256
Home runs:: Yankees 6 | Twins 4
RBIs: Yankees 24 | 20
ERA: Yankees 3.40 | Twins 4.15
Strikeouts: Yankees 33 | Twins 41
Walks: Yankees 24 | Twins 9
Key Late Game Matchups: The Yankees bring in lefty reliever Boone Logan to face Jim Thome in a one-run game. What happens? Thome already hit one season-turning home run this season against another towering lefty, Matt Thornton of the White Sox. Can Logan neutralize Thome? On the other side, right-handed setup man Jesse Crain gets the call in a critical situation against Alex Rodriguez. Crain, who has been terrific since May, has better numbers against A-Rod than other Twins relievers do. Rodriguez dominated Game 1 of the Division Series last year. Can Crain stop him now?
Twins: Danny Valencia may not be a household name -- yet -- but he came up in June and has taken over at third base. He has hit for a high average and has played well defensively. He has the talent to be a large plus factor for the Twins in this series.
Yankees: With the proviso that nothing is particularly secret about the world's most publicized baseball team, it would be a break from form if the Yankees won with speed. And outfielder Brett Gardner, who has played his way into a prominent role with the Yankees, has that kind of speed.
Twins: If Joe Mauer's right knee puts him out of commission or severely limits his effectiveness, the Twins won't be the Twins.
Yankees: Pitching, pitching, pitching. Some starter beyond CC Sabathia is going to have to pitch at least competently for the Yankees to prevail. And in the bullpen, the bridge to Mariano Rivera must be open for business, not under repair.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
Yankees will win if ...: The pitching, particularly the starting pitching, holds up. With their offense, the Yankees may require only competent pitching. But somebody in the rotation besides CC Sabathia will have to supply that.
Twins will win if ...: They play the type of baseball they have played for the vast majority of the season. This is a more balanced Minnesota team than its predecessors that lost in the postseason to the Yankees. But the ultimate postseason proof requires an actual victory over the Yankees.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.