October 7, 2010

ALDS Game 1: Yankees 6, Twins 4

Sigh.

Everything was perfect last night, except for that damn final score. I arrived at the jam-packed Kiernan's Irish Pub in time to see the final three innings of Roy Halladay's no-hitter, eventually made my way to fantastic Target Field seats just past third base, sat in gorgeous weather at a ballpark that was absolutely rocking ... and drove home depressed after watching a story that I've seen too many times before.

Some disjointed notes on another gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Yankees ...

• I didn't like Orlando Hudson bunting after Denard Span singled to lead off the game, just as I didn't like the various times when that situation played out the same way in previous playoff games against the Yankees. Giving up an out and playing for one run just doesn't make much sense when you're facing such a potent lineup. With that said, it's ultimately a pretty marginal situation strategically and I didn't have any major issues with the in-game tactics.

• On the other hand, I thought Joe Girardi did the Twins a favor several times with his bullpen management, first by leaving CC Sabathia in despite having David Robertson all warmed up in the sixth inning and then by using Boone Logan in a way that led to Jim Thome coming to the plate as the go-ahead run versus a righty. Sabathia wriggled out of his jam with the game still tied and Thome struck out, but Girardi's moves in those spots were questionable at best.

Francisco Liriano was thisclose to out-dueling Sabathia and putting together a great playoff debut, cruising through five very impressive innings, but things unraveled in the sixth inning. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada doing some damage is far from surprising, but Curtis Granderson tripling off the wall in right-center field was shocking given his career-long struggles against lefties and Liriano's dominance against lefties.

Jesse Crain was knocked around in his final appearance of the regular season Friday, giving up four runs against the Blue Jays, but prior to that he had a 1.06 ERA and .171 opponents' batting average in 51 innings spread over his previous 54 appearances. Perhaps his ugly end to the regular season was a sign that he'd serve up a back-breaking homer to Teixeira, but it would be crazy to not trust a guy who had one bad game following four months of dominance.

• Hudson has made his share of head-scratching plays on both sides of the ball all season, but his going from first to third on Joe Mauer's third-inning squibber showed a ton of smarts and hustle. And it ultimately led to a run.

• In the seventh inning Mauer slashed a line drive into the foul territory along the left-field line and a guy sitting in the row in front of me reached out and snatched it out of the air with his bare hand as if he were catching a set of car keys someone had tossed him underhanded. It sounded like a cross between a gun shot and slapping a slab of meat, yet when asked a few minutes later if it hurt his response was simply: "A little bit."

• Pinch-running for both Jason Kubel and Danny Valencia in the eighth inning is an example of over-managing. Kubel wasn't even the tying run and Valencia is certainly fast enough to run for himself. And if the Twins were going to win the game there was a good chance those two spots in the batting order would come up again, at which point Jason Repko and Matt Tolbert are hitting. A huge deal? No, but needlessly finicky.

• Thome has been so amazing that it felt weird to see him fail to come through in a couple big spots. He struck out on a ball in the dirt with two men on in the seventh inning and popped up to end the game after the umpires gifted the Twins a 28th out. J.J. Hardy also came up empty in two key spots, including whiffing off an incredibly wobbly Sabathia with the bases loaded. They weren't short on chances, but the Twins went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

• Tonight's matchup: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

October 6, 2010

Twins Notes: Before the storm

I'll be in attendance at Target Field tonight--in the stands with a Twins hat and a beer rather than in the press box with a laptop--so while anxiously counting down the seconds until 7:37 p.m. here are some notes before Game 1 of the ALDS ...

A.J. Burnett is in the second season of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, but he's been so bad while going 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts since August 1 that the Yankees have decided to bump him from the playoff rotation. Instead of using Burnett in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium they'll bring back CC Sabathia to start on short rest, followed by Andy Pettitte on full rest in Game 5. Here are the new game-by-game matchups:

Game 1: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Game 2: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

Game 3: Phil Hughes (176 IP, 4.33 xFIP) vs. Brian Duensing (131 IP, 4.11 xFIP)

Game 4: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (161 IP, 4.68 xFIP)

Game 5: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Sabathia was scheduled for two starts either way, so the rotation shift mostly just alters his matchups, but by giving Pettitte a second start in place of Burnett the Yankees dramatically increase his role in the series. Pettitte is MLB's all-time leader in playoff wins and innings, but he's also 38 years old and has allowed 11 runs on 22 hits in 13.1 innings since spending two months on the disabled list with a groin injury.

So far New York and Philadelphia are the only playoff teams committed to using a three-man rotation in the first round, although thanks to an extra off day in the NLDS schedule the Phillies can do so without starting anyone on short rest. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1995, pitchers starting games on short rest are 21-31 with a 4.65 ERA. Sabathia has made just six career short-rest starts, but he's 4-1 with a 1.52 ERA.

• Burnett getting bumped from the Yankees' rotation means the Twins will face a left-handed starter in four of five games, which is a definite advantage for New York. In the regular season the Twins had a .776 OPS versus right-handers compared to a .736 OPS versus left-handers, in large part because Jim Thome and Jason Kubel both struggle against lefties and the Twins don't have a good right-handed bat to sub for them.

Sabathia and Pettitte starting four times lessens Thome's likely impact, because for as great as he's been this season his OPS is 400 points lower versus lefties than righties. Thome just isn't JIM THOME against southpaws, and that's been true for his entire career. Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Danny Valencia need to step up as the lineup's top right-handed bats with Thome, Kubel, and Joe Mauer all at a big disadvantage in four of five games.

• On the other hand, the Yankees' lack of southpaw relievers plays into the Twins' strengths in the late innings. New York's bullpen has the potential to be extremely good, but Boone Logan is the lone left-handed option. He's held lefties to a .190 batting average and .501 OPS this season, but also has a 5.10 career ERA. Even if Joe Girardi trusts him in key spots the Twins' lefty heavy lineup will eventually get opportunities to face righties late in games.

• As expected, the Twins are going with 14 position players and 11 pitchers on the first-round roster. They don't have to submit an official list until this afternoon, but Scott Baker reportedly will be the odd man out in favor of Kevin Slowey unless Jon Rauch is deemed unavailable due to his knee injury and they both make the cut.

Matt Tolbert, Jose Morales, and Ben Revere were the candidates to fill the final bench spot and Tolbert is expected to get the nod. I think that's a mistake, because he's redundant with Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla on the roster and Revere offers far more playoff uses as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Young in left field. With that said, because the Twins are unlikely to pinch-hit for anyone in the lineup the bench's impact figures to be minimal.

• Last week Justin Morneau expressed a bit of optimism about potentially being available for the ALCS or World Series, but after some of his post-concussion symptoms returned following vigorous workouts the Twins have officially shut him down until 2011.

Francisco Liriano was named the Comeback Player of the Year for the American League, as voted by MLB.com's beat writers. Tim Hudson won the NL version over R.A. Dickey.

• Twins fans will be happy to see that Phil Cuzzi is not umpiring the ALDS and in fact is absent from MLB's first-round assignments along with Joe West and Bob Davidson. Jerry Crawford, Hunter Wendelstedt, Greg Gibson, Brian O'Nora, Gary Darling, and Chris Guccione are the crew for the Twins-Yankees series. Ron Gardenhire has a history of run-ins with Wendelstedt.

• I received a lot of e-mails, comments, and tweets from Twins fans upset about the New York Daily News' front page Monday, but the whole thing seems pretty silly to me. Don't confuse the people who write headlines for newspapers with the people who play for the Yankees.

• Released by the Indians in July after hitting .206 in 22 games, Mike Redmond announced his retirement. He's long been touted as a potential future manager and surely has a job waiting for him with the Twins if he wants it.

Terry Ryan is said to be on the Mets' initial list of targets to replace general manager Omar Minaya, although given his stated reasons for stepping down as the Twins' general manager in September of 2007 it seems unlikely that Ryan would want the same gig in New York.

• My primary regret about choosing to attend Game 1 sans press pass? Not getting a copy of the Twins' postseason media guide and its awesome cover photo.

• I'll have some Game 1 thoughts posted here by tomorrow morning, but if you're interested in reading my real-time babbling live from the Target Field stands tonight follow me on Twitter.

October 4, 2010

Getting to know the enemy: Bring on the Yankees (again)

For the second straight season and fourth time in their last five playoff appearances the Twins will face the Yankees in the ALDS. New York finished a game behind Tampa Bay in the AL East, so instead of hosting Texas as the division winner and AL's top seed they'll travel to Minnesota as the Wild Card team for a best-of-five series beginning Wednesday night at Target Field. And based on their play over the past few weeks, that may be exactly what the Yankees wanted.

Given ample opportunity to win the AL East and secure homefield advantage for the ALDS and ALCS, the Yankees frequently rested veterans down the stretch, set up their rotation for the postseason rather than squeezing extra starts out of their top pitchers, and often relied upon bench players, middle relievers, and September call-ups in key spots rather than lean on the usual suspects in clutch situations. And they still won 95 games.

New York's presence in the postseason was essentially never in doubt and I'm not sure if the Yankees actually preferred to make the playoffs via the Wild Card rather than by winning the AL East, but at the very least they didn't seem to care one way or another. And it's tough to blame them, because the Wild Card means a first-round trip to Minnesota and the Yankees are 54-18 against the Twins since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002.

That lopsided head-to-head record is misleading in that much of the Twins' current roster was not around for last season's ALDS loss to the Yankees, let alone the ALDS losses to New York in 2003 and 2004. For instance, Jim Thome has played in just four of those 72 games against the Yankees managed by Gardenhire and even Joe Mauer was only around for 40 of 72. What happened in 2003 or 2004 or even 2009 may not have much bearing on what happens now.

With that said, several key Yankees have been around for all 72 games versus the Twins and regardless of who was or wasn't around for what if the roles were reversed it'd be tough to blame the Twins for wanting to face a team they've dominated for a decade. My guess is that if asked most of the Yankees' roster would've picked starting the ALDS in Minnesota over having homefield advantage against Texas, and that's certainly how they behaved down the stretch.

From the Twins' point of view I went back and forth on which AL East powerhouse represented the more favorable matchup, ultimately deciding that the Rays were a slightly easier opponent than the Yankees. However, in either case the best-of-five series would have been extremely challenging and in either case the Twins are perfectly capable of winning. There's no doubt the Yankees are a strong team, but so are the Twins, and New York is both flawed and beatable.

All four AL playoff teams have an elite left-handed starter atop their rotation and the Twins get one who's been particularly tough on them over the years. CC Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 238 innings this year, ranking 10th among AL starters with a 3.78 xFIP, and has a 3.05 ERA in 28 career starts versus the Twins. Combining his overall excellence, success against the Twins, and left-handedness makes Sabathia one of the toughest possible matchups.

With that said, the same would have been every bit as true facing David Price or Cliff Lee in Game 1 and Game 5, and the rest of New York's rotation has the potential to be plenty shaky. Andy Pettitte is 38 years old and has pitched just three times since missing two months with a groin injury, giving up 11 runs on 22 hits in 13 innings. Phil Hughes was great in the first half, but may be worn down from a career-high workload and has a 4.90 ERA in the second half.

And while Twins fans fret about Nick Blackburn starting Game 4 a month after returning from a Triple-A demotion Yankees fourth starter A.J. Burnett has been so bad while going 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA since August 1 that they may skip him and bring back Sabathia on short rest. If you think the Twins' rotation has been cause for concern recently consider that their starters have a 4.46 ERA over the past month, while Yankees starters have a 5.83 ERA in that same time.

Here are the game-by-game matchups, assuming Burnett isn't skipped:

Game 1: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Game 2: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

Game 3: Phil Hughes (176 IP, 4.33 xFIP) vs. Brian Duensing (131 IP, 4.11 xFIP)

Game 4: A.J. Burnett (187 IP, 4.66 xFIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (161 IP, 4.68 xFIP)

Game 5: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

And if Burnett is skipped that means Sabathia will go on three days' rest in Game 4 followed by Pettitte on full rest in Game 5. Clearly the Yankees' rotation is filled with bigger names, higher salaries, and more postseason experience, but I'd say those matchups are pretty even and if anything the Twins may have a slight edge if the Francisco Liriano who led the league in xFIP and allowed zero or one run in 11 of his 31 starts shows up to combat Sabathia.

Mariano Rivera's late-season rough patch provides a bit of hope that he'll be something less than his usual unhittable self, but I'm not counting on it. He's both the greatest closer of all time and the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, finished his age-40 season with a 1.80 ERA, .183 opponents' batting average, and 45-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 innings, and becomes an even bigger weapon in the playoffs when multi-inning appearances are common.

Rivera looms as the ever present late-game hammer and his setup trio of Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood, and David Robertson is better than most people think. Chamberlain has 74/22 K/BB ratio and just five homers allowed in 71 innings, which is good for a 3.41 xFIP that ranks eighth in the AL. Wood struggles with his control, but has been untouchable since the Yankees acquired him from the Indians on July 31, posting a 0.69 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 26 innings.

Robertson is the least-known of the bunch, but has a 3.44 ERA and 3.51 xFIP in 105 innings over the past two years, with his 11.44 strikeouts per nine innings leading the league during that time. In terms of top-to-bottom bullpen depth the Twins perhaps have an advantage, but teams can typically rely on just three or four relievers in the playoffs and New York's foursome of Rivera, Chamberlain, Wood, and Robertson is as good and overpowering as any in baseball.

Offensively the Yankees led the league in scoring for the fourth time in five seasons, but unlike 2006 (930), 2007 (968), and 2009 (915) they failed to score 900 runs. Now, scoring 859 runs is clearly still great--by comparison, the Twins had a very good offense and scored 108 fewer runs--but the Yankees' total is inflated by a hitter-friendly home ballpark. They ranked third in runs scored on the road with 386, which is basically identical to the Twins' road total of 382.

None of which is to suggest that the Yankees' offense is anything but scary, as their lineup for each game figures to have just one hitter with a below-average OPS: Derek Jeter. However, aging has removed some of the panic-inducing thump from Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada, leaving a Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira fueled lineup that's "only" very deep and very good rather than unfathomably dominant.

In addition to the aforementioned season-long road numbers that put the Twins and Yankees on relatively equal footing at the plate, since the All-Star break the Yankees have scored 386 runs overall while the Twins have plated 372. New York has a better offense, but the gap isn't nearly as significant as the bigger names would suggest. Or, put another way, nine hitters in the series have an adjusted OPS+ above 110 and four are Twins, including the top guy:

                     PA     OPS+
Jim Thome           339     175
Robinson Cano       692     141
Joe Mauer           582     134
Nick Swisher        631     127
Mark Teixeira       707     125
Alex Rodriguez      590     123
Delmon Young        611     120
Danny Valencia      319     116
Jorge Posada        447     116

Even with homefield advantage on their side you'd be hard-pressed to make a very compelling argument for the Twins as favorites in this series--sure enough, they've opened as relatively slight underdogs at +145--but thanks in part to their strengths and in part to the Yankees' weaknesses this is closer to a balanced matchup than any of their three previous ALDS bouts. These aren't your older brother's Yankees. New York is very good, but also very beatable.