|Twins visit the Yankees for the 2017 AL Wildcard Game|
The Yanks are skippered by Joe Girardi, who has never experienced a losing season in his 10 years at the helm.
Girardi has accumulated a 910-710 record, and led the team to three AL East Division crowns. He also guided baseball's marquee franchise to their most recent World Series championship back in the fall of 2009.
Girardi accumulated 1,100 hits across 15 seasons in the big leagues, which included four in Yankee pin stripes. Those four years, from 1996-99, coincided with the franchise' most recent dynastic run. Girardi would win three World Series rings as a player with those Yankees teams.
Over in the visiting dugout, the Twins will be guided by Paul Molitor. One of the greatest hitters of all-time, the Hall of Famer amassed 3,319 base knocks over a storied 21-year career. He was a 7x All-Star and a 4x Silver Slugger Award winner.
Molitor was the MVP of the 1993 World Series while a player with the Toronto Blue Jays, and was also runner-up for both the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year and 1993 AL Most Valuable Player awards.
As the Twins manager, the Saint Paul native has compiled a 227-259 record over three seasons. Two of his three years have resulted in winnings campaigns. But a year ago, his Twins club finished at 59-103, the worst record in baseball.
This season, Girardi's Yankees finished at 91-71, just two games behind the arch-rival Boston Red Sox in the AL East. Molitor's Twins team was one of baseball's most unlikely stories, and finished 85-77, good enough to capture the second AL Wildcard spot by five games.
During the first decade of this century, the Yankees ousted the Twins from the American League Postseason four times. New York defeated Minnesota in the ALDS in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, the last two coming in three-game sweeps.
The host Yankees will enter the game as favorites, and prohibitive ones to many prognosticators. However, there are very good reasons to believe that each of these teams can win, moving on to a date with the defending AL champion Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.
WHY THE YANKEES WILL WIN
The 2017 New York Yankees are an offensive juggernaut, one that is led by a rookie masher who has become one of the most feared sluggers in the game today.
The Yanks were second in all of Major League Baseball with 858 runs scored this season, trailing only the Houston Astros by just eight runs. Their 241 home runs led the big leagues, and their .339 cumulative On-Base Percentage was third in the game.
That feared rookie slugger leading the way is 25-year old Aaron Judge. In his first full season, the right fielder hit for a .284/.422/.627 slash line. He crushed 52 home runs, knocked in 114 runs, and scored 128 times.
Judge, the odds-on favorite for AL Rookie of the Year honors, is far from the only threat in the latest incarnation of the Bronx Bombers. Another young stud is 24-year old catcher Gary Sanchez, who hit for a .278/.345/.531 slash while producing 33 homers and 90 RBI.
At age 27, shortstop Didi Gregorius combines flashy defense with a productive bat. He banged 25 homers with 87 RBI. Veteran left fielder Brett Gardner provided 21 bombs and scored 96 runs while leading the club with 23 stolen bases.
While those four are the offensive leaders, there are a number of other veterans sprinkled throughout Girardi's possible starting lineup and bench options, any of whom could prove to be difference-makers. Primary among those options are Matt Holliday, Jacoby Ellsbury, Todd Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Chase Headley.
Taking the mound for New York will be the club's youngest starter, but perhaps it's most talented. 23-year old Luis Severino went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.040 WHIP in his first full season in the big league rotation. Severino went to the All-Star Game for the first time this year. He allowed just 150 hits over his 193.1 innings, with a 230/51 K:BB ratio.
Theoretically, every arm on the active staff is available for this loser-goes-home game. But Girardi has an excellent variety of regular bullpen options in righties David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Adam Warren, and Dellin Betances, and lefties Jaime Garcia and Chasen Shreve.
At the end of games, Aroldis Chapman provides an overpowering closing option. Chapman struggled some at times this season, but allowed just 37 hits over 50.1 innings with a 69/20 K:BB ratio.
Severino provides a strong start in front of a juiced-up home crowd at Yankee Stadium, and the talented bullpen holds a lead. Judge and company provide offensive fireworks reminiscent of Octobers past in the Bronx. That's the recipe for a Yankees victory, and it is what most would see as the most likely scenario to play out in this AL Wildcard Game.
The Yankees aren't the only effective offensive attack in this game. Minnesota finished seventh in MLB, fourth in the American League, with 815 runs scored. Their clutch lineup finished sixth in RBI in all of baseball this season.
30-year old 2nd baseman Brian Dozier may be the best all-around player on the team, and is one of the most underrated in the game. Dozier led the club this year with 34 homers, 93 RBI, 106 runs scored, and 68 extra-base hits. His 16 stolen bases were second on the club.
Center fielder Byron Buxton is both dynamic and enigmatic. His 29 stolen bases led the Twins, and he also provided 16 home runs. One of the fastest and most exciting base runners in the game today, Buxton is a premier defender as well, and could prove to be a difference-maker in one game.
"He just has a lot of ways to impact the game," Molitor said per Jake Seiner with the AP. "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."
34-year old veteran Saint Paul native Joe Mauer is a local legend. The Twins first round selection way back in the 2001 MLB Draft out of high school has spent his entire 14-year big league career in a Twins uniform.
Mauer produced his best season in years, hitting .305 with a .384 OBP, 36 doubles, and 71 RBI. He has been a part of four Minnesota playoff teams, none of which has ever advanced past the ALDS. He is also another Twins player with the potential to take over and win one game all by himself.
"I'm really excited for this group to experience this," Mauer said per Seiner. "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."
Rather than one or two big bats, the Twins tend to nickle-and-dime teams to death. They receive clutch production up and down their lineup from those already noted, but also from players such as left fielder Eddie Rosario, shortstop Jorge Polanco, and third baseman Eduardo Escobar.
The Twins have a huge hole in their lineup for this Wildcard Game. The regular third baseman, Miguel Sano, crushed 28 homers and drove in 78 runs in just 114 games this season. Problem is, Sano fouled a ball of his shin back in August, causing him to miss more than a month. He was activated from the Disabled List just this past weekend, and went 1-8 in limited action.
The Twins considered activating him right up until today, and in fact Molitor himself believed his slugger would at least be available to pinch-hit as recently as Monday. However, late word is that Sano will not be available for this game in any capacity.
Starting on the mound will be 34-year old Ervin Santana. The veteran righty went 16-8 with a 3.28 ERA, allowing just 177 hits over a staff-leading 211.1 innings pitched this season.
Molitor's bullpen is not nearly as strong as that of his counterpart Girardi. 26-year old righty Trevor Hildenberger may be his best option. He will also turn to righties Tyler Duffey, Ryan Pressly, and Matt Belisle and lefty Taylor Rogers.
Don't be surprised to see the skipper turn to one of his key starters instead. Rookie righty Jose Berrios might be the most talented arm on the staff. The 23-year old was used out of the pen over this past weekend in order to keep him sharp and get him prepped for just such a possibility.
Santana keeps the Twins in the game for five innings. Berrios provides three big ones out of the pen. The Twins hunt and peck at the plate, chipping away for a couple runs here, a couple there, and pull out a tight victory. That's the most likely recipe for an upset road victory, and a date with the division-rival Indians in the ALDS.
THE MATCHUP AND PREDICTION
The teams met six times during the regular season, with the Yankees taking four of the six games. The Twins captured two of three in Minnesota back in mid-July. The Yanks then swept a three-game set in the Bronx just two weeks ago.
Santana started and lost the opener of that September series in his only appearance against New York this season. Though it was a narrow 2-1 defeat, he did not pitch all that well, surrendering two runs on seven hits over 5.2 innings.
Severino pitched even worse in his September start against the Twins, his lone appearance against Minnesota this year. He gave up three earned runs on five hits over just three innings.
Another poor effort from Severino could prove disastrous for the hosts. But I believe he bounces back, pitching well enough to keep his team in the game. The bullpen then shuts Minnesota down. Meanwhile, big Yankees bats do damage.
“We’re just going to try to treat it like we have the whole season coming here,” Judge said per CBS New York. “We played well at home. I think once Severy throws that first pitch and we get the game rolling, it will all be the same. I think the buildup before the game is nerve-racking, but once we step out on the field, it’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were little kids.”
I'll predict the Yankees to win by something like a 7-3 final score. That should set up quite an interesting matchup with the Indians in one ALDS beginning on Thursday night.