Twins set to renew 1-sided rivalry with Yankees in AL wild-card game
Minnesota returns to playoffs for 1st time in 7 years
Twins star Joe Mauer remembers well all those October losses to the Yankees. So too, surely, do Minnesota's fans.
Around the rest of the Twins clubhouse, though, it may as well be ancient history.
Back in the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Mauer and upstart Minnesota will face New York in the AL wild-card game Tuesday night hoping to turn around what has been a one-sided post-season rivalry.
New York eliminated the small-market Twins in the division series four times from 2003-10, repeatedly dashing the World Series aspirations of a largely homegrown lineup.
"Somebody asked me earlier, 'Does it feel like seven years?"' Mauer said. "I said, 'Yes, and all of that."'
Mauer is the only holdover from that era. Minnesota now has a new batch of budding young stars, and it's a group that's already wrecked some history. Powered by Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, these Twins became the first team ever to go from 100 losses one year to the playoffs the next.
"I'm really excited for this group to experience this," Mauer said. "There's a lot of guys in our clubhouse that this is their first go-round. I was just real happy. It's been a special year to see these guys kind of grow."
This time, Minnesota won't be running into playoff-proven Yankee greats like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Like the Twins, New York has been fueled by its burgeoning big leaguers. AL MVP hopeful Aaron Judge headlines the crew, which also includes Tuesday's starter Luis Severino and catcher Gary Sanchez. Only Brett Gardner, Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley started for New York in their previous wild-card appearance, a 3-0 loss to Dallas Keuchel and the Astros in 2015.
"The faces have changed so much," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who managed New York past Minnesota in the 2009 and '10 ALDS.
The 6-foot-7 Judge set a rookie record with 52 homers this year and has become the new face of the franchise. He even has his own cheering section at Yankee Stadium — The Judge's Chambers in right field, which will host a group of Bronx school kids Tuesday.
Limiting Judge may be the most pivotal task for Twins starter Ervin Santana.
"Have to be careful with him," Santana said. "Don't try to leave any cookies right there."
Here's some more to chew on before New York and Minnesota vie to face the reigning AL champion Indians in an ALDS:
Sano will be left off the Twins' roster after he failed to fully recover from an injured left shin.
Sano missed 38 games after fouling a ball off his shin, returned as a pinch hitter Friday and was Minnesota's designated hitter Saturday and Sunday. He was pinch-hit for in the eighth inning of Sunday's regular-season finale after feeling discomfort in the leg. Sano went 1 for 8 with three strikeouts in the series against Detroit and finished the season with a .264 average. 28 homers and 77 RBIs in 114 games.
Kennys Vargas or Robbie Grossman likely will be the DH in Tuesday night's game.
The 23-year-old Severino starts the wild-card game after going 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA in a breakout regular season. He averaged 97.6 mph on his fastball — tops among qualified starters by nearly 2 mph — and paired it with a powerful slider and improved changeup.
Molitor, a member of the 3,000-hit club as a player, said he'd suggest that his hitters do more guessing at the plate than usual to combat Severino's overpowering arsenal.
"I don't think that you go up there trying to hit all three of his pitches because that's usually not a good mix," Molitor said. "A guy that was comparable for me in his prime was Pedro (Martinez). I couldn't hit all three pitches. I just had to try to own something."
Minnesota faced Severino two weeks ago, chasing the right-hander after three runs in three innings. Severino laboured through a 46-pitch third inning, including a 13-pitch at-bat against Mauer that ended in an RBI single. It was the longest at-bat of the 2009 AL MVP's career.
More fun with fundamentals
So how did Minnesota go from 59-103 in 2016 to the playoffs this year? A big key was a renewed focus on fundamentals.
In spring training, the Twins packed players into classrooms to talk baserunning and defence.
"We cleaned a lot of that up," leadoff hitter Brian Dozier said.
Sure did. Minnesota finished 10th in the majors with 17 defensive runs saved after finishing 28th at minus-49 runs in 2016.
The Twins also led the majors with 28 bunt hits, according to Baseball Info Solutions, and they were the best team on the bases in the majors this year, according to Fangraphs' advanced baserunning metric.
Buxton was key in all those areas. The 23-year-old is a Gold Glove Award candidate in centre field, led the team with 11 bunt hits and was the best baserunner in baseball this year, as measured by Fangraphs.
"He just has a lot of ways to impact the game," Molitor said. "He might not get a hit and might be the most important player on the field, and there's not a lot of people who can fill that bill."
What a relief
The Yankees have a trio of all-stars at the back of their bullpen in Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson, plus two of baseball's best middle relievers in Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle. In a winner-take-all game, Girardi figures to get to those arms sooner than usual.
He also says he won't hesitate to use Betances, who has struggled with his control this year.
"I do feel good about Dellin," Girardi said.
On the other side, Molitor may use starter Jose Berrios out of the bullpen. Berrios made his first relief appearance in the majors Friday, getting the win with 1 1/3 scoreless innings against Detroit.