The Twins weren’t supposed to be in the playoffs this year. Technically, they still aren’t, but Minnesota has all but secured a postseason spot after sweeping the Tigers last weekend. Their magic number is now one, and FanGraphs gives them a 99.9% chance of clinching the second Wild Card spot.
How they got here
The Twins actually led the Indians in the AL Central into June, but they never really had a shot at winning the division. No team in the Central could have really pushed the Indians this year. With the White Sox rebuilding, that left the division a competition between Kansas City and Minnesota for the chance at a Wild Card spot.
Kansas City’s horrid start in April kept Minnesota in the race for a good part of the first half. The Royals went 33-19 in June and July, while the Twins began their worst two month stretch of the season, going 24-30. The poor play even made Minnesota sellers at the deadline.
The Twins traded for then-Braves pitcher, Jamie Garcia, then very quickly flipped him to the Yankees for prospects. They even traded their closer, Brandon Kintzler, to the Nationals for a prospect and cash. Granted, those aren’t exactly blockbusters, but trading big league guys for prospects typically isn’t what playoff teams do.
To be fair, the Twins were not in contention at that point. A red hot August put them back on the map, though. They went from four games under .500 on August 5th to eight games over. Their surge was, in large part, due to a strong offense, including the emergence of Byron Buxton. Impressively, the Twins have survived September without their best power hitter, Miguel Sano, and have parlayed their August success into what would be their first postseason berth since 2010.
What to look out for
Ervin Santana figures to start the Wild Card game for the Twins. Minnesota has scheduled Santana to throw on Thursday against Cleveland, so he’d be pitching on regular rest for the game against the Yankees. From a lineup stand point, this makes total sense. He has unquestionably been the Twins most consistent starter all year long. He’s currently 16-8 with a 3.36 ERA with 206.1 innings pitched.
Although the Yankees just did eek out a 2-1 win against Santana last week, this matchup bodes well for the Bombers. Santana allows quite a few home runs. His 1.35 HR/9 is 17th amongst all starting pitchers. Also, we must never forget that he really does not like pitching in Yankee Stadium.
Jose Berrios could perhaps make an appearance out of the bullpen if Santana does get into trouble early on. Berrios is a rising star in the Minnesota rotation. Just 23, the right-hander has a big fastball and one of the best curveballs in the game today.
Despite all his potential, it might be a good thing if the Yankees get to see Berrios. The club knocked him out of the game after just 3.1 innings, drawing four walks and scoring three runs along the way. Additionally, Berrios has terrible home-road splits. In 10 home starts, he owns a 2.45 ERA but sports a 5.17 ERA in 15 road games.
Essentially, the Twins’ offense is the key to their success. They score 5.06 runs per game, good for fourth in the league and best in their division. For the Yankees to win, they’ll need to at least contain, if not neutralize, the Twins’ biggest hitters. Here’s who to look out for:
Brian Dozier quietly transformed into one of the league’s best second basemen since 2013. He took a slight step back from his 5.8 fWAR in 2016, but he is currently third in fWAR among second basemen with 4.2. Dozier has also added 33 home runs this season. He’s one scary bat in the lineup.
The other key piece to the Twins’ second half surge has been the emergence of Byron Buxton. His season stat line won’t jump out at you because of an atrocious start to the season. That said, the former top prospect turned a .216/.288/.316 slash line in the first half into a .306/.355/.566 second half. He’s hit twice as many extra-base hits in the second half and his OPS nearly doubled too. Buxton is the total package. If his hitting has finally come around, he’s going to be very dangerous for many years to come.
On the other hand, Joe Mauer is well into the second half of his career. Still, it would seem Mauer has turned back the clock at the plate this season. He’s well-outperformed his projections and been a pleasant surprise when his decline looked so inevitable. In what has been Mauer’s best offensive season since 2013, the face of the Twins has put up another strong season— high batting average, 35 doubles, fewer than 10 homers, lots of walks, and not a lot of strikeouts.
Last, and most certainly not least, is Miguel Sano. An All-Star and Home Run Derby participant, Sano emerged as the Twins’ next big star in the first half of the season. By August, he led the team in home runs and was clearly the anchor in the Twins’ lineup. That said, Sano fouled a ball off his shin on August 18th and has been on the disabled list ever since.
Sano has begun hitting and running drills, but the Twins recently ruled him out for the rest of the regular season. His status for the Wildcard game is still in question. He hasn’t faced live pitching since going on the DL. With the minor league seasons over, Sano’s only chance at facing live pitching before the playoffs would be in the instructional league.
The Twins defied conventional trade deadline behavior, outlasted their division opponents, and nearly wound up in the playoffs. Their strong offense carried their middling pitching staff into a one-game playoff where anything can happen. If the Yankees’ pitching staff can stifle these Twin’s hitters, then New York stands a very good chance at winning this game.