The New York Yankees begin their quest to repeat as World Series champions on Wednesday in Minnesota, but with a host of question marks.
Pitching is foremost among them. Conventional wisdom suggests that if horse CC Sabathia can't excel, the Yankees are in big trouble.
Phil Hughes has no post-season starting experience, Andy Pettitte has been hobbled and hit with frequency in two of his three starts at season's end since returning to the lineup, and $82 million US man A.J. Burnett was so bad he was bounced from the rotation.
The Yankees have the all-time playoff saves leader, Mariano Rivera, but can they get him the ball with a lead? Their middle relief has been wildly inconsistent, with only David Robertson befitting the description of dependable.
By The Numbers
New York (95-67)
Home record: 52-29
Road record: 43-37
Season-end streak: 2 L
Home record: 53-28
Road record: 41-40
Season-end streak: 1L
Ballpark: Target Field
Opening Pitch: 8:37 ET
Minnesota produced the most home wins in the American League this season, but New York's bats have been kryptonite to the Twins in recent playoff history, including last year's sweep.
Minnesota enters the post-season with its own pitching concerns. Of the four projected starters — Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn — none earned a "W" in their last two starts.
Minnesota yielded 66 runs in an eight-game span up until the penultimate game of the regular season. It remains to be seen if that was the sign of a team that had already clinched a playoff spot losing focus, or foreshadowed a sixth consecutive one-and-out playoff appearance.
Players to watch
New York — Robinson Cano
Cano became the first Yankees second baseman to go over 200 hits in consecutive seasons, but he needs to follow the lead of Alex Rodriguez last year in earning a rep as a post-season producer. Cano was mostly a bystander from an offensive standpoint in last year's championship run.
Cano needs to produce for a couple of reasons. Reliable hitters Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher have been dinged recently with injuries, and it hasn't escaped notice that this will likely be the final playoff appearance of New York's esteemed quartet of Pettitte, Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. The latter two have showed signs of toothiness this season, although they were solid down the stretch. Can they turn it on in October again?
Minnesota — Joe Mauer
Mauer led the Twins with a .327 average but his power numbers were way down from his outstanding 2009 campaign, with the move from the Metrodome to Target and the absence of Canadian Justin Morneau for a half a season undoubtedly contributing to that decline.
Mauer's 7-for-25 career playoff ledger looks decent on paper, but there's just one extra base hit in the bunch. He has no home runs and just one run batted in over six post-season appearances, all Minnesota losses.
As mentioned, the recent pitching struggles will also put pressure on him as the catcher.
New York — CC Sabathia, 21-7, 3.18 ERA
Sabathia put himself in the running for another Cy Young Award with a spectacular summer, at one point going 14-2 in 17 starts.
After being outduelled by Tampa Bay's David Price in his penultimate season start, Sabathia rebounded with a three-hit effort over eight innings against Toronto.
The big left-hander has an unerring ability to work himself out of mid-inning jams to get to end of the game — he goes at least seven innings in about three-quarters of his starts.
Like most pitchers, he's more vulnerable on the road. All but two of his losses came away from Yankee Stadium, and he gives up more hits and home runs on the road.
Sabathia in 2009 slammed the door shut on a past reputation for lukewarm playoff performance. He allowed just eight runs and 28 hits in over 35 innings pitched in October and November, going 4-1.
Minnesota — Francisco Liriano, (14-10, 3.62)
Liriano threw a best-ever 201 strikeouts in addition to career highs in starts and innings. But he's lost his last three starts, yielding 15 runs in 13 1/3 innings.
Named the Comeback Player of the Year in the American League after struggles the past two years after elbow ligament replacement surgery, Liriano had allowed just six home runs this season until his final start of the season. Toronto's booming bats upped that total to nine.
Two other obstacles to overcome: The lefty is 0-2 in four starts in his career against the Yankees, and he'll mark the first post-season start of his career.
Will he be jittery pitted against the experienced Sabathia?
Since winning the 1991 World Series, the Twins as a franchise have lost five playoff series, winning just three of 21 playoff games.
That pain has been inflicted in large part by the Yankees, who've gone 9-2 against Minnesota in three series between 2003 and 2009.
This year, New York went 2-1 in both the series at home and in Minnesota. Interestingly, New York's rotation was such that the Twins just missed out on having to face Sabathia.