Week in Review: Stealing the Central
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 9/21 through Sun, 9/27
Record Last Week: 3-2 (Overall: 36-24)
Run Differential Last Week: -1 (Overall: +55)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central
Bomba Counter: 91
Three weeks ago in this column, when I was recapping a week in which Byron Buxton and Josh Donaldson both returned from the Injured List and immediately made big impacts, I wrote: "It's crystal-clear that nothing is more important to the Twins' chances of a deep postseason run than keeping Donaldson and Buxton healthy and effective."
Things were shaping up well on this front heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Then, suddenly, they weren't.
On Friday night, Donaldson exited following his first at-bat, which ended with him gingerly stepping out of the batter's box after hitting a pop-up to right field. Later in the game, Buxton took a wayward fastball to the helmet, ending his night.
Donaldson was diagnosed with a right calf cramp. Buxton was said to be experiencing mild concussion symptoms. Neither played on Saturday or Sunday, and their statuses for the first round of the postseason are up in the air.
The good news is that neither injury seems too serious on the surface, and Rocco Baldelli has expressed optimism that both players could be available on Tuesday. The bad news is ... well, where to begin? Baldelli has had a tendency to downplay injury severity all year (and why wouldn't he in this case?). The specific nature of each injury is concerning due to each player's history (Donaldson with his calves, Buxton with concussions). And most of all, it's just an extremely short window – these incidents occurred four days before an intense playoff gauntlet with no off days.
All we can do is wait and see. In the meantime, there were plenty of other developments worth tracking in the final week of the regular season, so let's break them down, and then look ahead to the coming playoff tilt against the Astros.
Minnesota's chances of repeating as division champs looked bleak when they left the south side of Chicago 10 days ago, having dropped three of four and cost themselves a tiebreaker against the White Sox. At that time, the odds were heavily tilted against the Twins, and even a week ago, as I mapped out scenarios for the final seven days, Chicago was in the driver's seat.
Ultimately, the Sox played poorly enough that Minnesota had to merely take care of business. The Twins did just that, finishing 3-2 at home against the Tigers and Reds while Chicago went 1-6.
As a result, the Twins won the American League Central despite dropping the final series against Cincinnati. This marks Minnesota's first time capturing back-to-back division titles since exactly one decade ago, when they did it in 2009 and 2010. Those two teams had a collective winning percentage of .557; the 2019/20 Twins have a collective winning percentage of .617.
Now, they'll host two or three games of the AL Wild Card Series at Target Field, where the Twins went 24-6 in the regular season. The visiting Houston Astros, meanwhile, went 9-23 away from MInute Maid, and finished two games below .500 overall. It would've been hard to hand-pick a better outcome for Minnesota, in theory, but now they need to go out and slay their postseason demons under these relatively favorable circumstances.
They'll have a decisive pitching advantage in Game 1, which wouldn't have been the case under any other match-up scenario. Zack Greinke is good, but Kenta Maeda's been much better, and on Wednesday, Minnesota's No. 1 starter made his final regular-season start in preparation.
While the results weren't great by his own high standards – in six innings, he allowed three runs, matching his highest total of the season – Maeda still looked plenty good while picking up the win and improving to 6-1. He struck out nine and walked none, inducing a season-high 22 swinging strikes.
In his final two starts of the season, Maeda struck out 17 men with zero walks and nine hits allowed over 11 innings. He's locked in and ready to go, and has earned plenty of confidence. Maeda is unlikely to shrink in the moment because, as our Cody Christie wrote last week, he's no stranger to October.
Just as Maeda is critical to the rotation's postseason success, Taylor Rogers is a vital bullpen crux. His struggles throughout the season have been a primary source of anxiety for fans, already thinking ahead (and backward) to late-game lapses in the playoffs. Nerves flared up again on Tuesday when Rogers came in to pitch the 10th inning of a tie game and allowed Detroit to pull ahead, singling in the auto-runner from second. It wasn't a terrible outing on its own merit, but another spot where the previously infallible closer failed to deliver.
Seeking to feed his relief fireman some confidence, Baldelli threw Rogers back into the heat on Saturday, bringing him into the seventh inning of a three-run game with two on, and one out. Once again, Rogers got nipped, yielding an RBI single (on an 0-2 count) and then hitting Aristides Aquino with a pitch (on a 1-2 count) to load the bases. From there, the lefty buckled down, retiring four straight batters with a strikeout and three grounders.
It was a much-needed glimmer of positivity for Rogers, who threw 75% strikes in his two appearances last week after an oddly erratic showing on the previous road trip. He's restoring some faith, although in terms of leverage Baldelli should pretty clearly have him pegged behind Tyler Duffey, who finished out Saturday's victory in dominant fashion (1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 3 K).
On offense, although the losses of Donaldson and Buxton were the banner stories for the weekend, one major gain cannot be overlooked: Luis Arráez is back and looking as good as ever. He went off in his return on Saturday night, going 4-for-4 with three doubles, and followed with two more hits on Sunday.
The second baseman was in vintage form, slashing the ball with lightning-quick wrists and driving liners in all direction, raising his final batting average to .321. Most critically, he was running hard, with no apparent limitations stemming from his knee or ankle ailments.
Getting Arráez's bat back is huge with a couple of Minnesota's other key left-handed hitters starting to find their strokes in timely fashion. Max Kepler snapped out of his prolonged slump last Sunday, and kept it rolling by going 6-for-20 with a homer, two doubles, and a walk-off single in the final week. Meanwhile, Eddie Rosario went 6-for-19 with a homer and a double, striking out just twice in 22 plate appearances.
With the Astros figuring to throw at least two right-handed starters in the Wild Card round, and featuring a RH-heavy bullpen, it's good to see Minnesota's lefty sticks finishing in a good place.
While Maeda was plenty sharp in his final tune-up, the two other projected first-round starters were less so. Michael Pineda saw his control go amiss on Saturday night, when he issued a season-high three walks while laboring through four innings against Cincinnati. He later (hilariously) addressed the uncharacteristic hiccup by referring to himself in the third-person: "I had a little bit of frustration with me because it’s not Big Mike, you know. Big Mike loves to attack the zone."
The previous night, José Berríos saw his hot streak (4-0 with a 2.14 ERA in six starts) come to an end as he coughed up four runs in five innings. Facing the Reds, he surrendered multiple home runs for the first time all year.
Neither Pineda nor Berríos looked all that bad necessarily, but it isn't ideal to see two of their greatest strengths – throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park, respectively – fall through at this stage. The margin for error next time out will likely be razor-thin.
On that note, the pitching staff would benefit from a bit of breathing room, but this will depend on an inconsistent lineup finding itself in a hurry. While lefty swingers like Arráez, Kepler and Rosario are carrying the load right now, it's difficult to envision the Twins exerting their offensive force against Houston without key bats from the right side stepping up. On this front, we haven't been seeing many encouraging signs.
Donaldson and Buxton are total question marks. Nelson Cruz, who was a trendy MVP candidate for much of the season, saw his performance tail off in a major way down the stretch, as he hit just .171 with one home run and two RBIs in his final 10 games, while missing time in the middle due to a knee issue. In three starts over the past week, Cruz went 1-for-10 with five strikeouts. Given the injury implications and his age, this can't be treated as a passing slump and dismissed as such.
With that said, Cruz's skid has nothing on that of Miguel Sanó, who was a major drag on the lineup throughout September after carrying it at times in August. Sanó finished 2-for-16 with zero extra-base hits last week, rarely putting together decent at-bats. In September, he slashed .148/.178/.383 with 39 strikeouts and three walks in 84 plate appearances. Hideous.
Mitch Garver had three hits in 11 plate appearances, including a monster home run and a crushed double, but he also struck out seven times. He hasn't drawn a walk since returning from IL and finishes with a .167/.247/.264 line on the season coming off his Silver Slugger campaign. That Ryan Jeffers starts Game 1 is basically a given at this point – the question is whether Garver will get any starts.
Minnesota has a top-notch pitching corps, and there are a few promising trends on offense, but seeing all these pivotal hitters in such bad ways heading into the postseason is alarming to say the least.
It's time for playoff baseball! Plenty of narratives will be at play as the Astros travel to Target Field for a first-ever postseason meeting between these two clubs.
Houston is returning to the national stage for the first time since becoming universally villainized by the revelation of their cheating scandal last winter. It's safe to say they'll have plenty more than just Twins fans cheering for their defeat.
Meanwhile, the Twins are haunted by the specter of 16 consecutive postseason losses. They'll be hoping to vanquish it against the defending AL champs, in an unprecedented best-of-three Wild Card round, aiming to move on and face the winner of A's/White Sox in the bubble.
Strangeness aside, it's about to get real.
We know who the Twins are planning to throw in all three games. For Houston, it's less clear. The absence of Justin Verlander, who underwent Tommy John surgery, looms large and leaves a void after the Game 1 starter Greinke.
It sounds like Lance McCullers Jr. would likely take the hill for a Game 3 if needed. As for Game 2? Right-hander Jose Urquidy, who started Friday, is a possibility. But given the Twins' struggles against lefties this year, it wouldn't surprise me to see Dusty Baker and the Astros opt for southpaw Framber Valdez, who last started Tuesday in Seattle.
Suffice to say that no matter which direction Houston goes, it'll be Minnesota with the on-paper advantage in every pitching match-up.
TUESDAY, 9/29: AL Wild Card, Game 1 vs. Houston – RHP Kenta Maeda v. RHP Zack Greinke
WEDNESDAY, 9/30: AL Wild Card, Game 2 vs. Houston – RHP José Berríos v. TBD
THURSDAY, 10/1: AL Wild Card Game 3 (if necessary) vs. Houston – RHP Michael Pineda v. TBD
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 56 | MIN 5, DET 4: Kepler Delivers Walk-Off Hit, Twins Half Game Back in Division
- Game 57 | MIN 7, DET 6: Jake Cave Rakes, Twins Take Division Lead
- Game 58 | CIN 7, MIN 2: Twins Lose Game, Donaldson, Buxton
- Game 59 | MIN 7, CIN 3: Arráez and Shine
- Game 60 | CIN 5, MIN 3: Twins Lose In Extras, Win Division
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email
- mikelink45, Dman, dbminn and 3 others like this