Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Five questions about Twins-Yankees
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
ALDS: TWINS VS. YANKEES
Complete coverage of the Twins-Yankees matchup.
On the surface, this is a mismatch. The Yankees swept the Twins twice this season, going 7-0. The Twins haven't won a game in New York since July 4, 2007, losing eight in a row. In the postseason in this decade, the Yankees have beaten the Twins twice in an AL Division Series, each time in four games. But these Twins are the hottest team in baseball, having won 17 of 21 down the stretch, including a remarkable victory over the Tigers in Game 163. They became only the second team since 1969 to overcome a four-game deficit with 16 to play, and the first team in history to make the playoffs after coming from three back with four to play. Minnesota also became the first team in American League history to make the playoffs in its final full season in its ballpark.
Here are five questions:
1. How good is the Yankees' bullpen?
It is the best of any team in this postseason. The Yankees have the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. The Yankees' bullpen has 40 wins, tying for the most wins of any 'pen in history. With Rivera, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves (10-1), Phil Coke, David Robertson and others, the pen is deep and versatile. And now, No. 4 starter Joba Chamberlain could join the mix in the first round of the playoffs, but only if he shows he can throw more strikes. Hughes has changed the dynamic of that pen with his work as Rivera's set-up man: In 51 1/3 innings, he is 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA, and he has allowed 31 hits, walked 13 and struck out 65.
2. How much did the wild race to the playoffs, especially Game 163, affect the Twins' pitching?
Greatly. The Twins used their best starting pitcher, Scott Baker, Tuesday night. Their second-best pitcher, Carl Pavano, pitched Sunday on short rest, leaving rookie Brian Duensing (he did not start against the Yankees this year but was pounded in one relief appearance) for Game 1. Pavano or Nick Blackburn could go in Game 2 and Baker in Game 3. Plus, Minnesota used everyone it had, including closer Joe Nathan for 1 2/3 innings Tuesday night. It's far from ideal, but the Twins' rotation has been far from ideal all year, yet somehow they found a way to win the division.
3. How good is the Yankees' offense?
It is the best in the game. The Yankees scored the most runs in the major leagues and, in the second half, averaged nearly six runs per game. They don't have an out in their lineup; they became the first team to have seven players with at least 20 home runs. They are the first Yankees team to have five players with at least 25 home runs. And they have, by far, the best batting average in the major leagues in late-inning, clutch situations. It all begins with leadoff man Derek Jeter, the seventh man to have a 200-hit season after age 34 as well as one before age 25. He also became the oldest player to get 200 hits and steal 30 bases in a season. First baseman Mark Teixeira has been brilliant, becoming the fourth Yankees first baseman to drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs in a season (Lou Gehrig did it 13 years in a row!). Statistically, the Yankees and the 1950 Red Sox have the most productive infields of all time. New York won't need as much from Alex Rodriguez, which is good, considering his recent postseason miseries: In his past 16 postseason games, he has just one RBI.
4. Do the Yankees have a potential weakness?
Starting pitching. It's possible that A.J. Burnett will be dominant and that Andy Pettitte will be the big-game pitcher he has been so many times in the past. But for all his great stuff, Burnett has an erratic side, as we saw in August when he went 0-4 with a 6.03 ERA. In the second half, he went 5-5 with a 4.33 ERA. Plus, New York catcher Jorge Posada is upset that he won't be catching Burnett (Jose Molina has become his personal catcher) in Game 2. Pettitte is 37, and he had some shoulder issues late in the season. How good will he be? Plus, Yankees ace CC Sabathia has a career ERA over 7.00 in the postseason.
5. Why do the Twins even have a chance?
They are the Twins. They play the game the right way. They hit with men in scoring position; they catch the ball as well as any team in the league. They play in the Metrodome with all its noise, its roof and its turf. They somehow finished fourth in the league in runs scored, and they averaged nearly six runs a game after star first baseman Justin Morneau was hurt 21 games ago. They have the eventual AL MVP in Joe Mauer. There is something special going on at the Metrodome, as was evidenced again with their victory in that amazing game Tuesday night. Maybe the magic ends with the Yankees, but given that the Twins were seven games out in September and came back to make the playoffs (fifth team ever to do that), never count them out.
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN FOURTim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.