Five Keys to Yankees-Twins
The Yankees are rested; the Twins will suffer a play-in game hangover
The Yankees are better offensively, even if the Twins had Justin Morneau
The Yanks, even on cruise control, have been almost as hot as the Twins
NEW YORK -- Near the end of the Yankees' one-hour-and-45-minute workout on Tuesday, as workers swept and power-washed new Yankee Stadium's concourses in anticipation of its first-ever playoff game on Wednesday evening, a driving, drum-heavy rock song blared over the ballpark's P.A. system. Some quick Internet research revealed the song to be something called Uprising, by a band named Muse. "Rise up and take the power back," the singer bellowed melodramatically, while the Yanks shagged fly balls and took batting practice. "It's time the fat cats had a heart attack/ You know that their time's coming to an end/ We have to unify and watch our flag ascend."
It was all a little disconcerting, as the Yankees remain the fattest of Major League Baseball's fat cats, and even though they are now nine seasons removed from their last World Series title, the role of oppressed upstarts fits them about as well as Lindsay Lohan's frocks fit the models at her recent universally maligned Paris fashion show. At the workout's conclusion, the Yankees were still five hours away from knowing whether their first round opponent would be the Tigers or the Twins -- "I think you're talking about two great teams, and either way, it's going to be a battle," said outfielder Nick Swisher, charitably -- but there was little question that whichever of the AL Central clubs advanced, that club would be a firm underdog. The Twins, of course, ended up winning the play-in game by the score of six to five in 12 innings. Even though none of the Yankees would dare suggest it, that development played right into their hands, for several reasons.
1) Play-In game hangover
Last season, the White Sox beat the Twins 1-0 in their play-in game but then meekly bowed out to the Rays in their ALDS series, losing three games to one. Two years ago, the Rockies beat the Padres in Game 163 on Matt Holliday's chin-banging slide and phantom touch of home plate, and that allowed them to continue their late-season momentum through NLDS and NLCS sweeps of the Phillies and the Diamondbacks, before they were trounced in four World Series games by the Red Sox. Merely participating in a play-in game does not always represent a harbinger of first-round doom; but in the Twins' case, it very well might. Alexi Casilla's game-winning single on Tuesday came just 20 hours and 20 minutes before Wednesday's first pitch was due to be thrown, and during that time the Twins had to travel from Minnesota to New York. Fatigue will be a factor for everyone, but even worse for Minnesota is that the man who is arguably their most reliable starting pitcher, Scott Baker, was forced to pitch on Wednesday and won't be available until Game 3 at the earliest. Momentum and adrenaline can only carry the Twins so far.
2) Offensive talent gap
The Yankees beat the Twins in all seven regular-season games the teams played in 2009, and outscored them 41-25. Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, played in all seven of those losses, and led the Twins in batting average during them, hitting .346. Morneau, though, was lost for the season in mid-September due to a stress fracture in his lower back, and his absence means that while the Yankees will feature eight regulars with an OPS better than .850, the Twins' roster will include only three: Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. The Yankees' clear-cut offensive superiority will be difficult for the Twins to overcome, particularly with a depleted pitching staff that will rely on rookie Brian Duensing, he of the nine career big league starts and the 33-36 minor league record, to start the opener.
3) Joba will rule
Last June, just as the Yankees were beginning the seemingly endless process of turning Joba Chamberlain into a starting pitcher, I had the opportunity to sit down with him for 20 minutes or so to discuss the transition. "You know you're going to be in for six, seven innings, so you have to save something every once in awhile," Chamberlain said then. "When you're in the bullpen, you know you're not going to see this guy more than once, so you can just let it go as hard as you can. As a starter sometimes you want to pitch less than what you can, so if you have to get a big strikeout you can throw that one harder."
Chamberlain has still not mastered that balancing act, as his career splits as a starter (4.18 ERA, 1.480 WHIP, 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings) and as a reliever (1.50 ERA, .983 WHIP, 11.9 K's/9) suggest. The Yankees, though, plan to deploy Chamberlain in relief in this series, and in preparation for that they used him out of the bullpen in his last outing of the season, on Oct. 4. He looked like his old, dominant self, throwing 97 miles-per-hour and retiring the Rays in order. The Yanks' pen has been terrific ever since the club moved Phil Hughes into a relief role on June 8 -- the pen has a cumulative 3.37 ERA and a .219 batting average against since then -- and it now might feature the best closer in baseball (Mariano Rivera), the best eighth-inning man in baseball (Hughes), and the best seventh-inning man in baseball (Chamberlain). If, in other words, the Yankees enter the seventh inning with a lead over the Twins, the rest of the game should be a mere formality.
4) Which CC Sabathia will show up?
CC Sabathia has, to this point in his career, been labeled a "small-game pitcher," due in large measure to his poor postseason performances -- he's 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA in five playoff starts. His explanation has usually been the same: that he was trying too hard. "I think maybe [I] just [try] to go out and do too much," Sabathia said again on Tuesday "Trying to go out and throw shutouts and throw no-hitters and things like that."
Sabathia, however, is probably being too hard on himself, as five clunkers -- the last of which came during last season's NLDS, after he has pitched magnificently on what seemed like every other day down the stretch to get the Brewers into the postseason at all -- make for a small sample size indeed. The fact is that Sabathia remains one of the game's true aces, and an ace who has pitched very well against the Twins: statistics provided to SI.com by Bill James show that no active Twin who has more than three at-bats against Sabathia has hit better than Mauer's .217, except, weirdly, Casilla, who is 9-for-13 (.692), and backup catcher Mike Redmond, who is 13-for-26 (.500). Sabathia will start Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 4, and the odds seem good that that "small-game pitcher" label won't persist much longer.
5) What about the 'intangibles'?
These would be things like the aforementioned momentum, which the Twins -- as winners of 17 of their last 21 games -- have; chemistry, which the Twins clearly have; and crowd support, which the Twins have, as evidenced by the raucous atmosphere in the Metrodome on Tuesday night. But the Yankees, who had little to play for as their AL East title and home-field advantage has seemed secure for ages, won 13 of their last 21 games; feature better clubhouse chemistry than they have in years thanks to jovial imports like Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. "Pie In The Face" Burnett, and Swisher; and had an MLB-best 57-24 record at home. In other words, while the Twins' Morneau-less streak into the playoffs has been stirring, all signs indicate that their run will end no later than Sunday.
THE PICK: Yankees in three.
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