The Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees have more history between them than one may think, meaning that this week's AL Wild Card preview is more than just a random late-season matchup.
Minnesota took two of three from the Bronx Bombers at Target Field earlier this year, but the Yankees were famously slumping at that point in the season and have turned into a new team since. The offense has come alive again and the pitching staff is revamped. Simply put, the worst thing the Twins can do is enter Yankee Stadium cocky.
But New York should not, and cannot, enter this series expecting to take it either. These three games should be considered postseason tuneups for both squads and if they both play their cards right, they can walk out of the tilt happy.
New York's keys to victory
The Yankees would sooner forget their earlier series against the Twins. On top of losing two out of three, the team was outscored 13-9 and just looked lost at the plate in general.
But Joe Girardi has taken a shrewd approach to this series. New York and Minnesota are currently the two AL Wild Card teams, with the Yankees leading the top Wild Card spot by four games. This means that if the season ended today, both teams would face off in the one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium.
Because of this, Girardi has actually rearranged his pitching rotation so that the Twins will not see ace Luis Severino this series. Rather, New York will send the following arms to the mound: Jaime Garcia (5-9, 4.35 ERA), CC Sabathia (11-5, 3.81), Masahiro Tanaka (12-11, 4.73). It's a risk on Girardi's part, especially since Garcia and Sabathia mean the bullpen could be taxed, but it's worth it just because it keeps the Twins in the dark on Severino.
The lack of Severino in this series also means that New York's bats must be on point. Gary Sanchez is on a hot streak and must stay as locked in as he has been. Chase Headley is batting .346 in September and just saw a 14-game hitting streak end. If Aaron Judge can find his stroke for this three-game set, all the better.
It's all about balance for New York when Minnesota comes to town and if they can achieve that, then the playoff prospects will look all the better.
Don't sleep on the Twins
And the Twins aren't a team to be taken lightly either. They have proven that their last-place finish in 2016 was a fluke and that they can indeed be a playoff team under manager and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.
Minnesota currently ranks eighth in baseball in runs scored, meaning that they can take control of this series so long as they are aggressive at the plate. However, they also rank 21st in pitching with a staff ERA of 4.64, so the Twins' main key to victory could, in fact, be shutting down New York's potent bats.
That goal could indeed be achievable since Minnesota sends Ervin Santana (15-7, 3.35), Jose Berrios (12-7, 3.84), and Bartolo Colon (6-13, 6.39) to the mound at Yankee Stadium this week. Berrios already held the Yankees to one run in 6.2 innings back in July, but Santana and Colon could have some trouble.
Though Santana has indeed looked like a better overall pitcher in recent years and actually leads the majors with five complete games and three shutouts in 2017, he has never been able to solve the Yankees. He is 6-9 with a 5.78 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 19 career starts against New York, though he did limit them to one run in five innings when he faced them in June of last year.
Similarly, Colon has had his issues with the Bronx Bombers and already lost to them when these two teams faced off last. He too has made 19 starts against the Yankees and is 6-8 with a 5.81 ERA against them, so history does not favor him nor Santana.
And it doesn't help that Colon has gone 0-3 with an ERA over seven this month after going 4-1 with a mark of 3.40 in August.
Throw in star slugger Miguel Sano still being out with a shin injury and without a return date, and strong pitching is all the more important for Minnesota this week. Any offense from Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, or even Joe Mauer should just be considered an added bonus.
The long and short of it is that this series is going to be intense, so be sure to watch it if you can.