As a Canadian, I was disappointed to see that the pride of New Westminster, B.C., Justin Morneau, will be sidelined for the entire post-season as he continues to recover from a concussion. That makes Toronto, Ont., native, Jesse Crain, a Twins’ reliever, the only Canadian playing in the American League playoffs. The Canuck right-hander is bound to see a lot of action as his club battles the mighty Yankees in an exciting American League Division Series (ALDS) match-up.
Over the past seven seasons, the Twins have faced the Yankees three times in the ALDS and have lost every series. But armed with a more potent offense and competing against a Bronx Bombers team that looks vulnerable, the outcome should be different for the Twins this year.
It’s hard not to like Derek Jeter. The longtime shortstop has come to symbolize class in today’s game. But even hardcore Yankees fans begrudgingly admit that their superstar infielder seems to have lost a step. Now 36, Jeter slumped to a .270 batting average this season, by far the worst of his career. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira also had down seasons and though he belted 18 homers, Jorge Posada’s defense has become increasingly suspect. It looks like age is finally catching up to the Yankees’ legendary core.
But with top-tier hitters like Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson in their lineup, and Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns on the bench, the offense won’t be the Yankees’ downfall this post-season. It’s the pitching staff that is most troublesome. After 21-game winner, C.C. Sabathia, who has never pitched particularly well in the post-season, who can the Yanks rely on for a decent starting performance?
The New York Post reported this morning that A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez – who both sport ERAs well over 5.00 – will not be in the post-season rotation. It’s rumored that Andy Pettitte, who has made just three starts since a groin injury sidelined him for August and much of September, and youngster Phil Hughes will start games two and three respectively. Hughes won 18 games this season, but his ERA is 4.90 since the all-star break.
With the addition of Kerry Wood, the Yankees’ bullpen is strong. Right-hander Joba Chamberlain has pitched much better since Wood has arrived to help shoulder the set-up man load. Another big question for the Yankees is can journeyman Boone Logan, the southpaw in their pen, shut down left-handed sluggers like Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome with the game on the line? Mariano Rivera, though he struggled in September, remains a dominant force as the team’s closer.
Though it lacks an ace of Sabathia’s calibre, the Twins’ starting rotation is deeper than the Yanks. Southpaw Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA) will start Game One, while Carl Pavano, vilified for his subpar performance in four seasons as a Yankee, will get the ball for Game Two at home. Left-hander Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 ERA) will start the third game. Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey represent decent options, if one of their starters should falter. With three potential closers in their pen – Jon Rauch, Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes – the Twins’ bullpen is strong. Crain and Matt Guerrier also performed admirably out of the Minnesota pen this year.
Even without Morneau, the Twins will showcase their best offensive team of the past decade. The 2010 additions of Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia and Jim Thome represent significant upgrades to their 2009 lineup. With a team-leading 112 RBIs, Delmon Young enjoyed a breakout season and Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Dernard Span are all solid offensive contributors.
I’m a Blue Jay fan, but I’m not a Yankee hater. That said, I think the Bombers’ shaky starting staff and aging core make them vulnerable to a Twins team that holds home field advantage and has improved their offense. This series will likely go the distance, but I think the Twins will ultimately prevail. Prediction: Twins in five games.