Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Aim Low, Shoot High

Most of the time, when we refer to “making the playoffs” as either Twins fans, players, or even bloggers, it is assumed that we are referring to that third division winner slot. The AL Wild Card usually has a better record than the AL Central Division champion, and the AL East Division champion almost always does. The rather recent emergence of the Oakland Athletics as a perennial 95-100 win juggernaut means that the lowly AL Central champ must settle for the third seed.

As you probably noticed over the past couple weeks, the 2004 Minnesota Twins seem intent on throwing that little arrangement right out the window. By the time you read this, here is what the overall American League standings will look like:

New York Yankees9254.630--
Boston Red Sox8757.6044
Oakland Athletics8461.5797.5

See that? Thanks to a nifty eight-game winning streak, your Minnesota Twins currently own the second best record among division leaders in the American League, one game ahead of the slumping Athletics. That, my friends, means that Twins fans will get to see Game 1 of the ALDS right here in Minneapolis as opposed to another trip to the Bronx. It also means that instead of squaring off with Orlando Hernandez and the New York Yankees, Johan Santana and the Twins will play host to Curt Schilling and the Boston Red Sox. Hey, I never said home-field was necessarily a good thing.

In my eyes, however, no matter who the Twins play it will be a good thing. There are only a couple teams in the major leagues who play better on the road than at home, and one of the most fundamental aspects of the game is that the home team always enjoys an inherent advantage over the road team (the last at-bat). Given a choice, I will always choose to play the Red Sox at home over the Yankees on the road, regardless of which team is perceived as the more “dangerous” right now. Plus, you can never discount the home crowd advantage at the Metrodome. The Twins may not have fared particularly well during home playoff games over the past couple of years, but there is no doubt that the Dome is still an intimidating place for opponents. You can’t underestimate the mental edge that 60,000 screaming fans will give the Twins.

In addition, the Red Sox are a team that is built for Fenway Park. They’ve got some tough right handed and switch hitters (Manny, Varitek, Cabrera, Millar, Kapler, Bellhorn), which is a must at Fenway. The BoSox also have three starting pitchers who usually throw more ground balls than they do fly balls, in Lowe, Schilling, and Pedro (although Pedro’s GB/FB ratio is really screwed up this year). Playing in Fenway definitely favors the Sox statistically.

The Twins, on the other hand, have always been more of a fly ball team, especially in the pitching department. When you play on such a fast AstroTurf surface, allowing too many ground balls will eventually get to you (see: Erickson, Scott). Radke has traditionally been a fly ball dominant pitcher; hitters get off balance and out in front of his change-up and lift a nice little popup to Torii in center. Before he started striking out everybody in sight, even Johan used to be a fly ball pitcher (his GB/FB ratio is 0.9 this season, the highest of his career). Of the Twins’ playoff starting 3, only Carlos Silva is a predominantly ground ball pitcher, which makes him a perfect fit for Fenway in Game 3. Silva’s recent performance (he threw 5 and 1/3 solid innings last night as well) makes me think that the Twins have finally solved their playoff rotation problems. If the Twins can hold onto this lead over the A’s, I think there is no doubt that Silva will be the one to take the ball when the Twins take on the Sox in Boston.

Some fans, including myself at times, have kind of tuned out the Twins right now, simply because their divisional lead is so enormous. But as you can see here, the team is still fighting for playoff position. If they can win this fight, it might just turn out to be the biggest victory of them all.

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