The Minnesota Twins are in New York, in the postseason. The stage is set. It's the Twins against the Yankees in the Bronx, with the right to play in the American League Divisional playoffs at stake.
Tuesday night's winner moves on, while the loser is done and hangs up the cleats until 2018 Spring Training. The Twins themselves might be the only ones who think they can beat the Yankees in a one-game playoff. And why not? Nobody outside the organization expected them to get his after, and anything can happen in one game. Anything.
The odds-makers and experts have the Twins as heavy underdogs at Yankee Stadium, and it's a role they've largely embraced this year. But there is a reason they're not expected to win: The Twins have lost 12 straight playoff games, and nine straight to the Yankees. They haven't won a playoff series since 2002, which marks 15 years.
But none of it matters in a one-game scenario with the season at stake. Here's four keys for the Twins that could lead to another champagne celebration in a visitor's locker room.
Get Minimum 5 Innings From Ervin Santana
While not the prototypical ace pitcher, Ervin Santana is the Twins' ace. He needs to pitch like it Tuesday night with the season on the line. Santana won 16 games this year with a 3.28 earned run average in 33 starts. In 211 innings, Santana has 167 strikeouts and 61 walks. He'll need to attack the strike zone early, but not be over the middle of the plate with short porches in right and left field. The longer he stays in the game, the better it bodes for a Twins victory. Maybe most importantly, keep Aaron Judge and his 52 home runs in the ballpark.
If Santana struggles early, it's all hands on deck for Twins' pitching. They could be forced to bring in Jose Berrios in relief. But if Santana can give you five or six innings, or even more, it gives the Twins a great chance.
Attack New York Pitchers Early
Twins' hitters have to be aggressive early against the Yankees and get the count in their favor to drive hittable pitches. Luis Severino will get the start for the Yankees. He finished 14-6 in the regular season with a 2.98 ERA. He throws hard and has nasty off-speed pitches. The Twins need to get on base, put pressure on the Yankees defense with their speed and come up with a few clutch hits.
The biggest key in the game is to have the lead after six innings. The Twins' best chance to win is by keeping relievers Dellin Betances and Arolis Chapman in the bullpen. If the Yankees have the lead late and either of those two pitches, they are virtually unhittable. The Yankees aren't invincible on the mound, but the Twins need to have good at-bats and get in favorable counts to get pitches to hit. Get an early lead, and hope Santana can be at his best.
Can Miguel Sano Play?
Pardon the pun, but one "wild card" in this Wild Card game for the Twins is Miguel Sano. He was activated from the disabled list for the final weekend series after missing 38 games with a stress reaction after fouling a ball of his shin. He got one hit on the weekend, but the fact that he was even able to play is a huge positive for the Twins.
But if he plays Tuesday night, he will be the designated hitter. And with his power in Yankee Stadium, anything is possible. Just having him in the lineup, even if he's running at half speed, gives the Yankees something the think about. His 28 homers and 77 RBI for the season are too good to leave on the bench. At worst, Sano should be brought into pinch hit if the Twins need a late-inning extra base hit.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Make no mistake, the Twins are in the postseason because of a vastly improved defense. They've improved their pitching and had some timely hitting, but they're in the playoffs because they've played a lot better in the field. The Twins finished the regular season fourth in MLB and second in the American League with just 78 errors in 162 games. They've also turned 143 double plays.
Their defense is actually led by their outfield, which features three guys who can all play center field. Byron Buxton has emerged as one of the best center fielders in the game. He has just five errors in 400 total chances. More importantly, he runs down fly balls in the gap that nobody else has a chance to get to. His speed is as much a weapon saving runs defensively as it is running the bases. In right field, Max Kepler has just two errors in 299 total chances, and Eddie Rosario has just four errors in 274 chances. The Twins outfield just doesn't let the ball hit the ground much, and it could be a big advantage at Yankee stadium if pitchers can keep the ball in the park.
The Twins should play like they have nothing to lose, because really, they don't. The only player on the roster with legitimate playoff experience is Joe Mauer. Go out, have fun and embrace the opportunity. What awaits is more champagne spraying and a flight to Cleveland for a division series.
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