If you’ve paid any attention to the local or national media over the past couple of days, you have seen a wide variety of predictions and prognostication when it comes to this week’s ALDS match-up between our Minnesota Twins and the hated New York Yankees. ESPN’s Buster Olney is picking the Yanks in four. ESPN.com’s Jim Caple and Michael Kinsley are saying the Twins in five, while 13 of ESPN’s so-called “experts” are siding with the Yankees. On the other side of the spectrum, CNNSI’s Dan George goes so far as to say that the Twins are headed for a World Series title.
Which of these writers know what they are talking about and which are simply blowing steam out of their respective rear ends? Pundit predictions usually are not worth their weight in Kleenex, so I don’t usually place too much stock in them. That said, I’m not averse to throwing my two cents into the pot. After all, isn’t that why you stopped by this site in the first place?
It is obvious that the Twins are a more formidable opponent for the Bombers this year, if only because of one man: Johan Santana. However, even Johan cannot single-handedly beat the Yankees. Below, I’ve highlighted a few of the major issues that surround this series, all with one single question in mind: Can the Twins really beat the 26-time World Series champions this time around?
1. Can Johan Santana really shut down the Yankees twice in a five game series?
The answer to this question seems obvious. “Of course Johan can beat the Yankees twice,” you’re probably saying by now. “He’s Johan!” Yes, Santana has been the best pitcher in the majors the last four months (by a wide margin), and by now you’ve probably all heard the stats: 18-2, 1.36 ERA, and 204 strikeouts in 22 starts since mid-June, not to mention a nifty 0.45 ERA in September. It seems reasonable to assume that he will continue his streak of utter domination in the Bronx tonight, but if baseball’s postseason has taught us anything over the past century or so, it should be this: don’t assume anything. I still think Johan will pitch well today and in Game 4 or 5, but I’m not expecting eight innings of shutout ball both times out. Anytime Santana pitches, the Twins have a great chance to win, but they have to take advantage of that chance by giving Johan at least marginal run support. That has been a major problem for the Twins at various points this season, it could easily happen again this October. Santana may pitch great, but a 2-1 loss is a loss just the same.
Answer: Yes, but the Twins need to get him some early run support
2. Will the Twins offense take advantage of New York’s suspect starting staff?
As you can already tell, just because I write about the Twins does not mean I am a clueless optimist. While the Twins have numerous weapons in their lineup, overall, they are not a great offensive team. Remember Scott Elarton? Jason Johnson? What about Chad Durbin? They are all second-rate starting pitchers who have shut down the Twins at one point this season. Unfortunately, because this lineup is composed of many good-but-not-great hitters, they are somewhat prone to the occasional inexplicable shutout. Mussina, Lieber, Hernandez, and Brown may all have seen better days, but if anything, they are all savvy veterans who "know" how to pitch. If Mussina and Lieber are on their respective games (a HUGE if, given their recent performance), the Twins may struggle to score runs. Not one of these pitchers will strike fear into the hearts of Lew, Torii, and company. If they do make mistakes in the strike zone, I’m confident the Twins will take advantage.
By comparison, Santana and Radke will each have to be nearly perfect in order to keep the Yankees in check. Their lineup is extremely dangerous from top to bottom, and there is little room for error.
Answer: I would like to think so, but inconsistently can strike at any time. We shall see what unfolds.
3. What can the Twins expect from Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse?
When discussing the Twins’ starting pitching, nearly all the focus has been on Johan Santana and Brad Radke, with good reason: Minnesota’s playoff chances will likely rest on the capable throwing arms of these two men. But what about the “other” duo, the pair that will possibly start two-fifths of this series? The wild card of this series is none other than Carlos Silva. He has largely been ignored by the media, and it has been assumed that the Yankees will feast on Silva’s delectable assortment of sinkers and fastballs when they face him on Friday. That may not be the case. Silva had an excellent month of September, going 4-0 with a 1.72 ERA, and has pitched well at home all season. He gives up a ton of hits, but does a pretty good job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. He also induces a lot of double plays, which may be key against a Yankee team that doesn’t have much speed. Six innings with three runs seems like a distinct possibility for Silva on Friday, which should be good enough for a Twins win, especially if the Yankees are forced to send the nose-diving Javier Vazquez to the mound.
As for Lohse, I was extremely disappointed to hear Ron Gardenhire announce he may start Game 4 if the Twins are up two games to one in the series. This is a big mistake on Gardy’s part. While there is an outside chance that Silva will pitch well against the Yankees, there is no doubt that Lohse will be torn to shreds. He has been horribly inconsistent all season long, and seems an unlikely candidate to finally “turn it around” in the playoffs. The Twins should go with Santana on three days’ rest no matter how the series stands. As Joe Torre has demonstrated so well over the past eight years, you have to shoot all your bullets in the postseason. Gardy has to go for the jugular and keep Lohse buried in the bullpen.
Answer: Silva may surprise, but giving Lohse a start is a big mistake.
4. What impact will “Yankee mystique” have on the outcome of this series?
Many people nationwide are siding with the Yankees in this battle simply because “they are the Yankees.” I’ll say this right now: that sentiment means absolutely nothing to these Twins, just as it didn’t last year when they played two close games at The Stadium. The Yankees are just as beatable this year as they were in ’01, ’02, and ’03. If enough things fall into place for the Twins, there is no reason they can’t send Steinbrenner’s millionaires home early.
Answer: None. The Twins won’t be intimidated; they believe they can win.
These four issues will play a major role in determining the winner of this year’s ALDS match-up between the Twins and Yanks, but many other questions remain. Will Justin Morneau provide the power threat that was sorely lacking a year ago? How will Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon handle the pressures of the postseason? Can Michael Cuddyer play adequate defense at second base? It has been established that the Twins can beat the Yankees, but the question persists: will it be done?
That, my friends, remains to be seen.