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They got plenty of help from a White Sox team that fell flat on its face, but the Minnesota Twins did their part as well, posting a winning week to rally from behind and secure their second consecutive AL Central title.


Up next: a postseason matchup against the Houston Astros at Target Field.

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.


Download attachment: playoffscenario.png

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


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"Stealing" is right. I wouldn't have expected the White Sox to lose 7 of their last 8 games, but they somehow did. I guess it was related to the fact that they were going up against strong competition, which has been their weakness this year.


Getting the Astros round 1 is ideal, but I have my concerns with the injured hitters and the bullpen. Rocco did his best to rest many of the hitters, but they've been so injury prone that there's not much he could do. Who knows if Donaldson or Buxton will be in the lineup, Polanco's swing doesn't look right, Garver is still broken, Gonzalez, Adrianza, and Cave were way better hitters in 2019, Cruz doesn't look right, and Sano is back in a slump. Yikes!

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Suffice to say that no matter which direction Houston goes, it'll be Minnesota with the on-paper advantage in every pitching match-up.


Objectively, seems like the game 2 SP matchup could be a wash.


Valdez 11 G, 70 IP, 83 ERA-, 65 FIP-


Berrios 12 G, 63 IP, 89 ERA-, 91 FIP-


(If they go Urquidy, he is definitely more of a wild card with the small sample, although he was quite effective last postseason.)


Frankly, McCullers vs Pineda seems close too. Pineda has better rates this year but in a much smaller sample. McCullers has been pretty consistent when healthy, and has been excellent in the postseason (while Pineda has never pitched in the postseason).


Even Greinke may not be that far off Maeda — by FIP-, they are about equal, 64 vs 67. (ERA- is 94 to 60, though.) Greinke almost won WS game 7 last year.


Twins will obviously have the home field advantage, and on paper have the better offense and bullpen. SP was actually a strength for Houston, even without Verlander — Twins may still hold an advantage there too but less than the other factors.

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I am more concerned about the bullpen than the lineup. Half your hitters having a good day is enough to win. But a bullpen failure can cost you the game, and they all seem to be looking shaky at the same time. Romo has been getting hammered, Wisler's spell seems to have broken, Rogers hasn't been getting it done all year -- suddenly I don't feel comfortable with any of them, and they are going to need them all without any off days.


This would be a really good time for the bombs squad to show up in full force, especially Cruz and Buxton, who can carry a team by themselves. I can handle not winning, but if health derails us again, just when we finally have all the pieces in place, that would be hard to take.

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Great recap, Nick.


Wrote elsewhere that I watched the games in Columbus, Ohio listening to the Reds tv crew. They were raving about Arraez, including comparisons to Pete Rose. Can't remember if I heard it there or read it online, but one comment was that Arraez could wake up on Christmas morning and go out and get a couple hits...or something like that.


To be honest, the biggest surprise for me has been that MLB actually got thru this season with all teams playing 60 or close to 60 games. Hell of a job by the players and management to have a great COVID plan in place and sticking to it.

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I worry most about Buxton - we have seen concussions take away our best players before and the impact is so long that is more than just playoffs that could be affected.


I am so glad Arraez is back.  My favorite Twin - old school like me - get on and good things can happen.  No more of the K is the same as any other out. 


Yes a K might be better than a DP (unless a run scores then it is a wash), but a K is not better than a ball in play where runners can advance, an error can be made, or bad judgment can help runners score or advance. 


The BP is not looking good - I keep reading about how Rogers last outing was promising, but he gave up a hit to score a run and then put another batter on base before succeeding.


Final thought - the Astros are probably happy with this playoff situation too.  

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I would not say the Twins stole it.  Each team played 60 games, we finished ahead of them at the end of it.  Just because we had our losing slump in middle of season and they had theirs at end does not change the outcome.  Remember when sky was falling and we had a long losing streak middle of season?  Well Sox just decided to have long losing streak at end of season. 


In terms of matchup, on paper it looks like a great matchup, but pitching to me seems pretty fair matchup for short 3 games.  You never know what may happen, I mean we got swept in 3 games by KC, on the road at least.  I think being home will make the difference, but Houston is playoff tested for most part and their hitters can get hot.  Our offense has not clicked together all year.  This would be perfect time to change that. 

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Quick glance and methinks the Twins have about the easiest road to the league championship out there.


Say what you will, good teams take advantage of these opportunities. This team has lost 16 straight postseason games, which is not just amazing but also embarrassing.


A win on Tuesday will have everyone believing.

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Objectively, seems like the game 2 SP matchup could be a wash.

Valdez 11 G, 70 IP, 83 ERA-, 65 FIP-

Berrios 12 G, 63 IP, 89 ERA-, 91 FIP-

Eh, you could make that argument solely on the basis of the 2020 sample but I'm gonna lean on track record here. Both are 26, but Berrios has made 115 MLB starts and thrown 659 innings compared to 23 and 178 for Valdez. When you get to the postseason, experience matters (as we've seen a few times).

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Does Garver get the start?  My gut tells me Rocco will put him in there for game one, don't agree with it, but my gut says he does.  Avila shouldn't be on 28 man active for any playoff series.  Defensive catcher that some say is the best on squad but he such a weak link at the plate.  Jeffers, pleasant surprise and has the goods both offensive and defensive.  Plate discipline by him is superior to the other two, not afraid of getting to 2 strikes to put ball in play or get his pitch.  Let the fun begin tomorrow!


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If we don't outslug them I think we are in trouble. I don't like our bullpen in tight low-scoring games. Arraez is the only hot bat we have. WTF is wrong with Jorge? Especially from the left side? Cruz? Slump. Sano? Lost in space. Garver?
I cling to hoping.

Agree with you on our shaky bullpen but it will be interesting to see how Houston does in the playoffs now that they aren't cheating.  

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