If the Yankees didn't officially punt a chance at a second straight AL East title in order to ensure an ALDS matchup against the Twins, as opposed to the Rangers, it was rather clear as the regular season drew to a close that they didn't mind very much if that was how things played out. In the Yankees' four games after they clinched a postseason berth on Sept. 28, even though they then trailed the Rays by just a half-game, manager Joe Girardi gave starts to the recently bad Javier Vazquez and the never good Dustin Moseley, and inked names such as Greg Golson, Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez on his lineup cards.
New York, predictably, went 1-3 in those games, and now instead of hosting Texas (against whom they went 4-4 this season, and by whom they were swept in a mid-September three-game set) it will be in Minnesota to open what it hopes will be another extended playoff run. The Yankees have won 14 of 16 games against the Twins since the start of 2009, including a quick and relatively stress-free 3-0 sweep in last year's ALDS. This iteration of the Twins -- which had an AL-best 48-26 record after the All-Star break -- is more formidable that was last season's, however, and this ALDS redux won't be nearly as one-sided.
Not for the Twins -- even though a loss would mean that they'd immediately relinquish their home-field advantage -- but for the Yankees. Last October, CC Sabathia put his past postseason struggles rather firmly behind him, going 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in five outings, and he'll have to be equally magnificent in his Game 1 start against reborn Twins ace Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA). Even though the Yankees this season paid their starting pitchers some $65 million -- more than the total payrolls of nine teams -- they don't have another starter in which they can be completely confident, and it's difficult to see how they can win this series if they begin it with a defeat.
Andy Pettitte's left-handedness should help him against Minnesota's three biggest lefty power threats -- Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome, each of whom struggles against southpaws -- but Pettitte is 38 years old and looked shaky in two of the three starts he made after returning in mid-September from a strained left groin sidelined him for two months. He allowed six earned runs and 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox on September 24, and a week later closed out his regular season by yielding three runs and nine hits in four innings against a depleted Sox lineup that included the likes of Daniel Nava, Yamaico Navarro and Felipe Lopez. Pettitte simply can't be counted on to be the same pitcher he was even last fall, and that means that the Yankees' fortunes could hinge on the 24-year-old Hughes, who is set to start Game 3.
Hughes made the All-Star Game after a first half in which he went 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA, but as his innings mounted -- to 176 1/3, 90 1/3 more than he threw in '09, when he was primarily a reliever -- his performance declined. His second-half ERA was 4.90, and his strikeout rate fell from 8.1 per nine innings to 6.6/9. The Yankees desperately tried to limit his workload (his last seven-inning start came on July 9), and they'll have to hope he's refreshed, as Sabathia will receive a maximum of two starts, and two wins won't be enough for the Yankees.
The Yankees did what the Yankees do at the trade deadline, exploiting their unmatched financial resources to add, among others, Kerry Wood, who has been simply outstanding in a set-up role: in his 26 innings in pinstripes, Wood has allowed two runs. But the Twins are no longer the small-market upstarts of even last season -- their 2010 payroll was the game's 10th highest -- and that allowed them the flexibility to further address the spring training loss of four-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan (to a UCL tear that was at the time thought to be crushing) by trading for a pair of closers in former National Matt Capps and former Angel Brian Fuentes. Both have been stellar in Minnesota -- Capps has a 2.00 ERA and saved 16 of his 18 chances, and Fuentes has allowed no runs and only five baserunners in his 9 2/3 innings so far -- and that means that what once might have been a significant advantage in the Yankees' favor shouldn't prove to be one at all.
Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP and four-time All-Star, has in recent years feasted on Yankees pitching (he hit .346 with a 1.221 OPS against New York in 2009, and .350 with a 1.017 OPS in '10), but injury -- this time, a concussion -- will keep him on the bench for his second straight postseason. His absence was deeply felt last October, when the Twins scored just six runs and mustered a putrid .638 OPS in the ALDS, but it might be less so this time thanks, in large measure, to the long-awaited emergence of 25-year-old left fielder DelmonYoung.
Young, the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, ranked fifth in the AL with 112 RBIs, and was hitting .300 as late as Oct. 1 (he finished at .298). Just as important is that he now appears to possess the wherewithal to pick up the slack against left-handers like Sabathia and Pettitte left by Mauer, Kubel and Thome, as his .927 OPS against southpaws was the AL's eighth-best. (He is, for the record, a .579 career hitter -- in 19 at-bats -- against Pettitte). Morneau will still be mourned, but Young's maturation should position the Twins' offense to put up a better fight.
The Twins finished their inaugural season in Target Field with the best home record in the American League, at 53-28, and now, without the protection of the Metrodome's bulbous roof, the elements should start to come into play. It is, after all, October, and it is, after all, Minnesota. Diving temperatures (lows of 45 degrees are predicted for both Games 1 and 2) could sap some of the power out of even the Yankees' bats, which produced an MLB-high 859 runs -- more than 55 percent of which, it should be noted, were scored at home. Of course, it was also chilly during last year's World Series (47 degrees, for instance, during Game Six), which stretched into November in New York and Philadelphia, and Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and crew still averaged 5.3 runs during that series's six games. But the approaching Minnesota winter is just another factor that could ever-so-slightly play into the Twins' hands -- another factor that suggests they might be in store for subsequent games this month, when it is colder still.
THE PICK: Twins in 5