Monday marks the Twins last off day before the end of the season, and provides a good chance to take a step back and survey what lies ahead. Minnesota opens a three-game series with Cleveland coming to town, with Tuesday marking the first of seven remaining games between the Twins and the Tribe. So essentially, more than half the Twins’ remaining 13 games come against Cleveland, a team which has underachieved virtually the entire season, but finds itself a mere 1.5 games behind the local nine.
The series matchups don’t favor the Twins, either. Danny Salazar takes the mound for Cleveland Tuesday night, and he’s proven to be one of the most physically gifted pitchers in the American League, with 9.7 strikeouts per nine, a league-average groundball rate and a 3.48 ERA to go along with legit 95 mph heat. His changeup (27.2 percent whiff rate) is absolutely devastating as well. Things get no easier with Corey Kluber starting on Wednesday. And while he’s taken a bit of a step back — far less than most think, however — from last year’s Cy Young pace, he’s still had the Twins’ number all season long. He’s held them to a .085/.128/.146 batting line with a 1.38 ERA across three starts. In 26 innings, he’s allowed only 11 baserunners. Cody Anderson starts on Thursday, and while he’s a total wild card — he’s faced the Twins just once, and they smoked him — keep in mind that manager Terry Francona was willing to bump Trevor Bauer from the rotation to keep him in there. After a rough August, Anderson has a 1.78 ERA in four September starts.
And if that isn’t tough enough, the upcoming four-game series with Cleveland promises to be just as tough. Not only are the odds good that the Twins will get Kluber again in the series opener on Monday, but that’s four games in a row down the stretch against the team which ranks fourth in the AL in starter ERA, first in strikeouts and second in FIP. It’s pretty easy to make an argument that this rotation and the Rays’ are in a dogfight to be the best in the AL.
It’s not certain which Tigers team the Twins will find at Comerica after the first Cleveland series, but there are a couple things at play here. The Twins lost two of three to Detroit at Target Field last week, and this is probably a Tigers team that hasn’t totally forgotten the thrashing they took to end last season. The Twins took two of three from the Tigers in Detroit in mid-September last year and split a four-game series to end the season with two blowout wins when they were jockeying for position in the playoffs. The Tigers were summarily bounced from the playoffs in three straight by the Orioles and find themselves fighting to get out of the cellar at the present time with a 69-79 record — a game back of fourth-place Chicago.
The other team in the Twins’ way of the end of the season is Kansas City, and while an 11-game lead wouldn’t suggest a team needing to get things together, it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride for the Royals for awhile now. The Royals are 7-13 in their last 20 games and now are battling with Toronto for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Royals have a two-game lead as of this writing, and of course at this point it’s unclear where that’ll stand when they invade Target Field from Oct. 2-4, but ultimately it’d be ideal for the Twins if they have nothing left to play for. The odds don’t seem to favor it, however.
So what’s a realistic need for the Twins record-wise in the 13 games that remain? Fangraphs’ Cool Standings presently gives the Twins a 6.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, and an expected final record of 82-80. That’s progress from the last four seasons, but disappointing to be sure. Not many teams get to the cusp of the playoffs after a rough stretch and revel in the fact that they almost made it, even if that represents considerable growth. Cool Standings projects 89 wins for the Yankees and the top Wild Card slot; the Twins would have to finish 13-0 to match that. So … that can clearly be ruled out.
The projections suggest 85.4 wins for the Astros and 82.7 for the Angels; we’ll round to 85 and 83 for mathematical ease. At 76-73, the Twins would need to go 9-4 to match that projection for the Astros — and maybe 10-3 to be safe — and that’s assuming the Halos don’t flip the script. Going 7-6 would be enough to beat their projection and the Angels’ as well, but that would only claim the third Wild Card spot which, as of this writing, doesn’t exist.
In short, the Twins are going to have to go all Chris Sale on Corey Kluber and friends if they’re going to punch their ticket into October. Well, further into October. The odds don’t favor it, but that’s why they play the games.
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