Small Miracles: How To Beat The Yankees
Image courtesy of Brad Penner, USA TodayWinning a single game against any opponent should not be such an intimidating proposition, but we all know the history here. The Twins have lost nine straight postseason games against the Yankees and have a .270 winning percentage against them overall dating back to the start of the Ron Gardenhire era.
This year, Minnesota extended a streak of futility by dropping four of six against New York in the regular season. The last time the Twins won a season series against the Yanks was 2001 when they went 4-2. Their winning pitchers in those victories were Brad Radke, Joe Mays, Eric Milton and Eddie Guardado.
Now, Guardado is overseeing a bullpen that's been surprisingly effective since subtracting its top performer at the deadline. But even if Brandon Kintzler was still around, Guardado's unit would still be at a staggering disadvantage against this powerful Yankees relief corps.
So as we examine potential weaknesses to exploit in a quest to slay the giant, we must first confront its most menacing strength.
The Unwinnable Bullpen Battle
When these two teams met in NYC two weeks ago, the pivotal moment in the series came in the eighth inning of Game 1, with New York leading 2-1. The Twins had managed to mount a rare threat against this vaunted pen, capitalizing on Dellin Betances' wildness to load the bases with one out.
Stepping in: Joe Mauer. On deck: Byron Buxton. Two of the league's better hitters in the second half. So Joe Girardi went to his big gun, calling on Aroldis Chapman for a five-out save.
Mauer's ensuing at-bat is one that sticks with me as I think back on that game, and look ahead to Tuesday's. He'd been one of the game's toughest outs over the previous month, batting almost .400 and rarely failing to make contact. Chapman blew him away on three pitches, burning him with a 103 MPH fastball for strike three and then inducing a weak fly on the first pitch against Buxton to escape unscathed.
In that game, Girardi utilized a strategy he would love to follow again on Tuesday, pulling his starter in the sixth at the first sign of trouble, and then letting his three-headed bullpen monster take care of the rest. Chapman, Betances and David Robertson got 10 outs without allowing a hit, and that's pretty much the norm; not one of the three has allowed a batting average higher than .202.
Ervin Santana pitched well enough that his team was only down one when he exited in the sixth, but that single run looms incredibly large against such a fearsome late-inning trio.
It is urgent that the Twins strike early. They'll be attempting to do so against one of the American League's finest starting pitchers.
Flaws are not easily detected in Luis Severino, New York's 23-year-old All-Star rotation-fronter. He ranks third in the AL in ERA, trailing only Corey Kluber and Chris Sale who will surely be the top two Cy Young finishers. Severino is a strikeout machine and doesn't issue many walks. He has every attribute of an ace. Oh, and he's red-hot: 2.10 ERA and .423 OPS in his five September starts – each a win for the Yankees.
He originally signed out of the Dominican Republic for a relatively modest $235,000 on December 26th, 2011 (a belated Christmas gift, it turns out). A month earlier the Twins had signed fellow countryman Fernando Romero with a $260,000 bonus.
Romero was ranked as Twins Daily's No. 1 prospect this spring and he showed signs this year that things are moving in the right direction. We can only hope he someday approaches the brilliance Severino is already displaying.
Severino brings gas. There isn't a starter in major league baseball who can match his velocity. He's got a nasty slider and a quality changeup. He is an intimidating force, but he's not infallible. The Twins know this because they're the only team that has gotten to him in the past month. His only unspectacular start in September came against Minnesota, who chased him after three innings by running him up to 71 pitches.
Can they repeat it? There are three reasons to think they might:
1. Patience Pays
Severino doesn't have the frequent bouts of erraticness you expect from such a hard thrower. He has issued one or zero walks in more than half of his starts, and his 2.4 BB/9 rate would be the best of all Twins starters save for Bartolo Colon.
The Twins only walked once against Severino in their lone matchup with him this year, but they grinded out at-bats and made him work hard. Mauer, redeeming himself after the tough result against Chapman two nights earlier, drove in the game's first run with perhaps the best AB by a Twin all year, a 13-pitch marathon ending in an RBI single. We'll need to see a lot more of that – pesky at-bats that ratchet up the pitch count and force another early exit. The Twins rank third in the AL in walks and fourth in pitches per plate appearance.
2. Ambush Approach
The beauty of this Twins offense is in its ability to attack with such sudden ferocity that an opposing team hardly knows what hit it. They strike and score in bunches. You might as well call them the Crooked Number Crew.
Severino doesn't get flustered often and frequently gets into grooves where he's virtually untouchable. But he is susceptible to the ambush. He was cruising along in that start against the Twins until they jumped all over him in the third, and then he was gone. It's a recurring theme in his less-than-stellar performances this year (not that there have been many) – blips of turbulence that snowballed.
3. Nerves and Wear
Going with Severino in this winner-take-all affair is essentially a no-brainer, but the decision isn't without risk. He's a 23-year-old who has never pitched in a game with these kinds of stakes, or anything close really. On top of that, he's at an unprecedented workload, with 193 innings in the books (his previous high was 162).
I'm not saying either of these things are necessarily decisive issues. But together, they are worth keeping in mind.
The Miggy Factor
Just when it was starting to appear Miguel Sano might not make it back this year, he pronounced himself ready to play ahead of this weekend's closing series against Detroit. In his tuneup games, he didn't look close to 100 percent, displaying some rust at the plate and still limping on his injured leg, but Sano is the best and most dangerous hitter on this roster. His absence was felt in the Bronx two weeks ago, when the Twins scored only six runs in a three-game sweep.
If Sano is healthy enough to swing a bat, he pretty much needs to be in the lineup, or at the very least available on the bench. Paul Molitor essentially acknowledged this, saying after Saturday's game: "I'm leaning that even just having the threat has enough value to consider it."
It seems safe to say that Sano won't be intimidated by the spotlight. He has never played in a game of this magnitude but history tells us he thrives in big spots, and (SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING) his track record against the Yankees is strong: 1.169 OPS with five home runs in nine games, including two homers and four RBI in three contests at their park.
Plugging Sano into the starting lineup requires a leap of faith from Molitor, who acknowledged that the slugger's timing and recognition were clearly amiss on Friday and Saturday. But it feels like a leap he needs to take, doesn't it?
Playing the Ground Game
As you'd expect from a group leading the majors in home runs, the Yankees are a prototypical power-hitting team that loves to elevate the ball. Against fly ball pitchers this year, they've hit .268/.345/.489, compared to .253/.334/.392 against ground ball pitchers. That's a 108-point drop in OPS, whereas MLB as a whole has only a 20-point difference.
The bad news here, of course, is that Ervin Santana is no one's idea of a ground-ball pitcher. His grounder rate is 15th-lowest among big-league starters and his fly ball rate is seventh-highest. The long ball has been his most evident weakness in an all-around excellent season; only five pitchers have allowed more than his 31 bombs.
The good news is that he hasn't allowed multiple homers in a start since July, and he also has a skill that should play very well against the Yankees: missing bats. Santana ramped up his whiffs in the second half, with a 12% swinging strike rate in 14 starts since the break. That clip would rank just outside MLB's top 10 overall, and actually just a tick behind Severino.
Santana might be in trouble if he lets guys like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez put the ball in play too often, so the key will be to make them miss.
That's a known skill of Jose Berrios, who might be first in line to relieve Santana, but New York's splits could cause Molitor to think twice. His 39% grounder rate is lower even than Ervin's, though he hasn't been as susceptible to homers, allowing zero in his past four appearances. If Santana gets in trouble early, Berrios remains the obvious choice as a bridge to the bullpen, but there shouldn't be an overeagerness to get him in.
Molitor should, however, be prepared to go to Trevor Hildenberger whenever things are getting sticky. His 59% ground ball rate is elite.
And, yes: the Twins are going to miss having Kintzler available.
Stealing on Sanchez?
On Sunday afternoon, Byron Buxton stole his 29th base of the season on his 24th consecutive successful attempt. This one came the same way as most before it: really, really easily.
The Tigers knew, with certainty, that he'd be attempting to steal. Anibal Sanchez threw over three times before delivering a pitch. As soon as he went home, Buxton was gone, and he coasted into second base without a throw. It feels safe to say he's the best base stealer in the game right now, and he may be on his way to establishing himself as one of the best ever.
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, for all his flaws as a receiver (his 16 passed balls lead the league), does have a good arm. He threw out 41% of runners last year and is at 38% this year, both well above average. Meanwhile, Severino doesn't get run on often (only six attempts in 31 starts) so this is a tough battery to crack.
I'd bet on Buxton, but would be reluctant to send any other members of the lineup. One thing to keep in mind: Ehire Adrianza is 8-for-9 on steals this year and had a 72% success rate in the minors. He'll be available on the bench.
It feels strange to write so many words in a preview for one single game, but that's where we stand. An entire season comes down to this one contest. We already know that each decision and controversial play on Tuesday night will be overanalyzed and dissected to death, so we might as well get it started early, right?
The Yankees are heavily favored in this game, with good reason: They are the better team – right now, anyway. To pull off this unlikely victory and advance, the Twins need to orchestrate an upset.
And with that in mind, I keep coming back to that quote from Herb Brooks, who knew a little something about the task. "Be better than you are." For one night at least, the Twins need to do just that.
At the risk (okay, certainty) of sounding over-dramatic, it feels wrong not to close with this question:
Do you believe in miracles?
- Tibs, Dman, dbminn and 2 others like this