Twins take aim at mighty Yankees
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins insisted they were more amused than offended by the back page of Monday's New York Daily News, but it literally became bulletin-board material Tuesday, when someone taped a copy to the dry-erase board in their T...
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins insisted they were more amused than offended by the back page of Monday's New York Daily News, but it literally became bulletin-board material Tuesday, when someone taped a copy to the dry-erase board in their Target Field clubhouse. With a big picture of Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, the headline says, "E-Z PASS." Then, in smaller type, it says, "Bad news: Yanks must go on road for playoffs. Good news: They play the Twins."
Veteran reliever Matt Guerrier just shrugged. "I'm sure if we scanned all the papers in New York, we'd find worse than that," he said. Counting the postseason, the Yankees are 54-18 against manager Ron Gardenhire's teams, including 29-6 in New York. After the Yankees swept the Twins from last year's Division Series, general manager Bill Smith went on a mission to change the story.
New York had bounced the Twins from the first round of the playoffs three times in seven years, and it was little consolation for Smith that the well-heeled Yankees went on to win their 27th World Series title.
"We have to find ways to close the gap," Smith said last November at baseball's annual general managers meetings. "We've been to the playoffs five times this decade, and now we need to keep pressing to get to the next two steps."
Since then, Smith has re-signed Carl Pavano, retained potential free agent Joe Mauer and added several new pieces: Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes.
The Twins have a chance to close the gap today, heading into Game 1 of the American League Division Series, facing the same old Yankees at beautiful new Target Field.
More potent lineup
Thome, Hudson and the other newcomers don't care what history says about this one-sided rivalry. They only know what's happened since they became a part of it, and the Twins went 2-4 against the Yankees this year.
To understand how different this should be from the 2009 playoffs, start by comparing the lineup Gardenhire will use for the Game 1 rematch against left-hander CC Sabathia.
Last year: Denard Span, Orlando Cabrera, Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto.
This year: Span, Hudson, Mauer, Young, Thome, Cuddyer, Kubel, Valencia and Hardy.
The biggest difference comes in the 7-9 spots, where the Twins have upgraded from three utility players (Harris, Tolbert and Punto) to three regulars who have helped the team's engine churn (Kubel, Valencia and Hardy).
"I just think we're a more complete team," Span said. "We're more experienced. We're a year older, I think we're a year hungrier, too."
They are also more rested. Last year, Game 1 at Yankee Stadium started less than 24 hours after the Twins' finished beating the Tigers in a one-game playoff for the AL Central title at the Metrodome.
"We rushed into everything," said Kubel, who went 1-for-14 with nine strikeouts in last year's playoffs after batting .300 with 28 homers and 103 RBI.
"It just all came up quick, and it was over with fast."
A settled staff
After squeezing every possible drop from their starting rotation to reach the postseason, the 2009 Twins turned to rookie Brian Duensing for Game 1.
Now, the Twins have been lining up their rotation for weeks, giving starters extra rest along the way. Though he's rough around the edges, Francisco Liriano gives them a potential shut-down starter in Game 1, with veteran Carl Pavano looming as a potential stabilizer in Game 2. Duensing and Nick Blackburn, with playoff experience gained last season, are ready for Games 3 and 4.
Blackburn gave the Twins a strong start in Game 2 last year, but it turned into another Yankee Stadium nightmare. Alex Rodriguez tied the score by hitting a two-run homer off Joe Nathan in the ninth inning, and the Twins' attempts to regroup in the 10th were thwarted when umpire Phil Cuzzi incorrectly called a foul ball on Mauer's potential double down the left field line.
This year, Cuzzi can't hurt them. He was not among the 24 umpires picked to work the first round.
The Yankees also look a little more vulnerable after winning 95 regular-season games, compared to 103 last year.
"They're a beatable team," said Blackburn, who went 2-0 against New York this year. "We can go out and beat them. There's no reason we shouldn't."
Last year, the Twins limped into Game 1. Mauer injured a hip flexor muscle rounding first base in Game 163. He batted .417 in the Division Series, but it took a few weeks to heal his hip.
The extra rest this year's Twins had after clinching the AL Central on Sept. 21 turned to rust down the stretch, as they stumbled to a 3-8 finish, but Gardenhire's chief focus was getting healthy.
Mauer got a nine-game break to rest his sore left knee, Thome got an eight-game break to heal his stiff back.
"It's funny, every year we clinch and then stink," Cuddyer said. "Unfortunately, (last year) it was Game 163 that we clinched, and then we stunk in the playoffs. Hopefully that can reverse a little bit."
Besides, the Twins have tried it the other way, too. In 2006, they finished the regular season with a 71-33 flourish and still got swept by Oakland.
"I've liked our chances every year, but I thought '06 was our best chance because we had home-field advantage and were on such a roll," Cuddyer said. "Unfortunately we ran into Frank Thomas."
Thomas hit two home runs in Game 1 of that series, and the Twins crumbled after losing behind eventual Cy Young winner Johan Santana. In some ways, the Yankees resemble the 2006 Twins. If they lose Game 1 behind Sabathia, they could be in trouble, especially with all the injury questions surrounding Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte.
Instead of opening in New York, this series starts at Target Field, where the Twins have drawn 78 consecutive sellout crowds.
At times, this has felt like a charmed season for the Twins, especially the way the weather has cooperated for Minnesota's first season of outdoor baseball since 1981. If the Twins go on an extended October run, the Metrodome might eventually be missed, but Gardenhire's teams never captured the postseason magic the building brought to Tom Kelly's 1987 and 1991 World Series title teams.
The Twins actually lost their final eight Metrodome postseason games. They have adjusted well to Target Field, posting the AL's best home record at 53-28.
The Yankees come in with their $200 million payroll, but the Twins are no longer the Little Engine That Could. Smith pushed the payroll past $100 million this year, up from $65 million on Opening Day last year.
For a group that entered the year with World Series aspirations, another first-round exit would be viewed as a failure.
"We have that confidence, but it's not a cockiness," Cuddyer said. "We still remember that we definitely haven't gotten as far as we'd like to in recent years, so there's still some work to do."
AL Division Series
Who: New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins.
What: Best-of-five-games series.
Today's game: Series opener, Yankees at Twins, 7:37 p.m..
TV/radio: TBS (GF Channel 57); KNOX (1310 AM).
Starting pitchers: Yankees, CC Sabathia (21-7); Twins, Francisco Liriano (14-10).
Thursday's game: Yankees at Twins, 5:07 p.m.