ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Yankees

The New York Yankees (103-59) and Minnesota Twins (101-61) will square off against one another in the American League Division Series. The Yankees won the season series with the Twins, 4-2, including a dramatic, come-from-behind 14-12 win over the Twins at Target Field back in late July, which ended with Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks making a sprawling grab in left-center field to save a potential bases-clearing double.

These two teams are familiar foes when it comes to playoff baseball, as they’ve met five times in the postseason since 2003. New York has won all five series, with a 13-2 playoff record against the Twins. This year’s series will simply be power versus power. Minnesota edged out the Yankees, hitting an all-time Major League Baseball record 307 home runs, while New York slugged .306.

The Yankees and Twins have players from the top to bottom of their orders that can really swing the bat, so it’s going to be interesting to see which pitching staff will be able to slow the bats down enough to win this series. The Yankees have won 10 straight playoff contests against the Twins, but this Minnesota team is a whole different animal than past years, and they should be able to give the Yankees a run for their money in this highly anticipated series. Here are the deciding factors to the series and which team will ultimately advance to the AL Championship Series.

Deciding Factors:

Will Pitching Show Up for the Yankees?

There’s no sugarcoating that the Yankees rotation has struggled this season. Their powerful lineup has made up for their woes on the mound, but it’s going to be crucial that their starters give them some quality innings in this series. James Paxton will take the hill in Game 1, followed by Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino in Games 2 and 3. Severino is finally back and looking sharp, so hopefully he can give manager Aaron Boone some longevity.

On the whole, their rotation has struggled this year, as they finished the regular season with a 4.51 staff ERA. With Domingo German not available due to a domestic violence incident, they basically just have Paxton, Tanaka, Happ, C.C. Sabathia, and Severino, who hasn’t pitched much this season due to a shoulder injury. Happ, Tanaka, and Sabathia all have ERAs well over four, while Paxton is the only one with an ERA around the three mark (3.82). I’d imagine Boone will probably stick with Paxton, Tanaka, and Severino in this series.

Despite the rotation’s struggles, they will need to step up and give their team enough quality innings and try to hold the Twins to a minimum amount of runs, so they can hand the ball off to their bullpen. Adam Ottavino has had a sensational debut year in the Bronx, posting a 1.79 ERA in 65.1 innings, while Aroldis Chapman has blown away opposing hitters, totaled 37 saves, and recorded a 2.25 ERA. Add in hard-throwing lefty Zack Britton and his filthy sinking fastball, and the Yankees have more than enough bullpen arms to make up for their inconsistent rotation. As long as their starters can keep them in games, their bullpen should be able to do the rest — like they’ve done all year.

Will the Yankees Offense Produce Enough Runs?

The Yankees did hit a lot of home runs this season, but they also struck out a lot. The Twins have some solid arms in their pen and a couple of top-end starters in Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, but that shouldn’t intimidate this powerful lineup. Gio Urshela, who enjoyed a breakout year, hitting .314 with 21 home runs, sprained his ankle on Sunday and could be out for a bit. But Edwin Encarnacion is set to return for Game 1 of the series, giving New York another powerful bat in their lineup.

This team lives for the long ball, with seven players blasting 20 or more home runs, including Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez, who hit 38 and 34, respectively. They had a team batting average of .267 this season, which was fourth in the big leagues. Every player in their lineup is a threat to go deep, even Brett Gardner, who somehow hit a career-high 28 home runs this year. The majority of their runs came from the long ball, so it will be important that they continue to do so in the postseason. Just like Minnesota, every player in their starting lineup can make a difference with one swing of the bat. A lot of them have playoff experience as well, so that will prove to be an important factor.

It hasn’t really mattered who the Yankees face on the mound this year, either. They have raked against some of the best arms in the majors and also led the bigs in runs scored per game at 5.82, with Minnesota just behind them at 5.8. But will the New York bats show up when it matters most in the playoffs? Only time will tell.

Can the Twins take advantage of New York’s rotation woes?

As I mentioned above, New York’s rotation has been a clear weakness this season. Well, if the Twins want any chance at winning this series, they’ll have to get to the Yankees starters early, forcing Boone to turn to his bullpen earlier than he’d prefer. It’ll be crucial that Minnesota gets a healthy amount of runs off New York’s starting pitchers because their bullpen is really that good. Although the Yankees have historically flown past the Twins in the playoffs in recent memory, this Minnesota team is completely different this year.

They’ve never been known as a power-hitting team until this season. They had five players with 30-plus home runs this year, with slugger Nelson Cruz leading the way with 41. Their leadoff hitter for the majority of the year, Max Kepler, had 32. From the leadoff hitter to the nine-hole, this team has the ability to do damage with one swing of the bat. They also finished the year with the second-best team batting average in MLB (.270).

The Twins were one of the best road teams in the majors this season, winning over 50 games away from Target Field. If they can go into Yankee Stadium and snatch Game 1 and maybe Game 2, they’re going to put themselves in a very good position heading back home.

Can Berrios Lead Minnesota’s Rotation?

Jose Berrios, 25, will more than likely start Game 1 for the Twins and will possibly take the mound for a second time if the series goes a full five games. For the first time in his career, Berrios tossed 200 innings, going 14-8 with a 3.68 ERA in 32 starts. He looked sharp in his last start of the season this past weekend, averaging 96 mph with his heater. From an electric fastball to a wipeout slider, his stuff is remarkable. He’s the ace of this staff, and he has more than enough grit and competitiveness to give manager Rocco Baldelli some quality innings against the Yankees. It’s going to be crucial that he get the Twins off on the right foot in Game 1 and hopefully come back in Game 5, if necessary, and do the same. He hasn’t faced New York once this year, which could turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing; only time will tell.

The Twins rotation is running slightly thin after Michael Pineda was suspended for the use of a banned substance. Berrios, Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez, and Devin Smeltzer have all started games for the Twins this year. It’s likely that it will be a one-two punch of Berrios-Odorizzi, but it’s undetermined who will start after that. The Twins starters finished with a 4.19 staff ERA in the regular season, which was fifth in the big leagues. Not awful by any means but also not great. The absence of Pineda will definitely sting because he had been relatively good, as of late.

Their bullpen, however, has several bright spots that will play a vital role in their playoff fate. No big names, just a variety of guys who have been getting the job done on a nightly basis. Guys like Zack Littell, Trevor May, and Tyler Duffey have all put up solid numbers in the late innings for Minnesota. Closer Taylor Rogers has collected 30 saves in 36 opportunities this season with a 2.61 ERA. Just like the Yankees, the hope is that the Twins starters can give them enough innings to turn things over to the bullpen, which has been solid all year.

Prediction: Twins in Five

I believe that it’s time that Minnesota beats the Yankees in the postseason; it has been a long time coming. In every aspect, the Twins have a very good team, as do the Yankees. But it’s time that the Twins advance to a championship series. It will be a very entertaining series, but unlike what most people are saying, I predict the Twins edge out the Yankees in five games.

This team is very hungry to be a contender this October. The Twins have been one of the best teams in baseball all year, and they have made it very clear that they fear no one. They may not have any big-name stars, but they’re a fundamentally sound ballclub that has more than enough talent to beat New York in this series. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be one heck of a series. I just think that Minnesota is going to come out on top, and they’re going to take full advantage of New York’s rotation. It’s playoff baseball though, so anything is possible. But if there’s one guarantee, it’s that this ALDS will be a lot more entertaining than past postseason series between the Twins and Yankees. The difference this time around is that the Twins are a legitimate team.

Game 1 will take place Friday night in Yankee Stadium on MLB Network at 4:07 PST.

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