There was no chance this matchup could happen, not in early April, not even in early August. The Minnesota Twins were coming off a 103-loss season, and no team had ever made the postseason following a season of 100 losses. And on April 1, the New York Yankees weren't a favorite to make the playoffs, they weren't even sure Aaron Judge was ready to play every day in the big leagues. Move ahead to Aug. 5, the Twins were 52-56, they had a negative run differential and several teams were in better position to win the second AL wild card. Then the Twins got hot, they started hitting homers and the Yankees kept hitting homers. So, here we are, the Twins against the Yankees. The Twins have lost 12 straight playoff games, the second-longest streak in postseason history. Nine of those losses have come against the Yankees, but the two haven't played in the postseason since 2010. A lot has changed.
Here are five questions.
How good is the Yankees' bullpen?
Oh my. The league is hitting .205 off the Yankees' pen, by far the lowest opponents' average in the league. The relievers have 653 strikeouts in only 538 1/3 innings. Their top eight relievers all average a strikeout per inning, led by Chad Green, who has 103 strikeouts and 17 walks in 69 innings. They can follow him with, among others, Adam Warren, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, making the Yankees so dangerous in October because they can shorten a game to five innings. Chapman, it appears, is over his throwing issues from a month ago, and he is close to being his intimidating best. Meanwhile, the Twins traded their closer (Brandon Kintzler) to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline, making a closer of Matt Belisle, who has been good, as has Trevor Hildenberger. But, the Twins' bullpen has only 482 strikeouts, the second fewest in the league.
How good is the Twins' offense?
On the morning of Aug. 5, the Twins were 19th in the major leagues in runs scored. Since then, they are first in the major leagues, during which time they went 33-21. And they did most of that without their most destructive power hitter, Miguel Sano (injured shin), who returned to the lineup last weekend for the first time since Aug. 20. Exactly how he will be used in the postseason -- and how rusty he will be -- will be interesting to see. Since Aug. 8, the Twins have hit 87 homers (most in baseball) to win the second wild card with relative ease. The Twins have four players with at least 20 home runs, six with 15 or more. This season, they scored in double figures 18 times, one short of the club record. Suddenly, they can really hit.
How good is the Yankees' offense?
The Bombers finished second in the league in runs scored, and first in home runs. The one-two punch of Judge and Gary Sanchez combined for 85 homers, most of any tandem in the postseason. Judge, after a vicious 45-day slump after the All-Star break, finished with a career-long 13-game hitting streak and a seven-game RBI streak. But for the Yankees, it's much more than the two big guys in the middle; it's Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, Matt Holliday and others. The Twins will look to their ace, Ervin Santana, to control that Yankees lineup. Santana went 16-8 with a 3.36 ERA this year, and on the road, he was 10-3 with a 2.84 ERA. But, his postseason numbers are not good: five games, two starts and 14 earned runs allowed in 22 2/3 innings. And his numbers at the new Yankee Stadium are really bad: 6.43 ERA in five starts.
How did the Twins turn things around?
On the first day of spring training, manager Paul Molitor told his team that its defense in 2016 was terrible, and that was going to change NOW. Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said that every day of the season, defense was stressed, and it has showed. These Twins are demonstrably better this year. Their outfield defense is especially good. They essentially start three center fielders in Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler. Buxton is the key. His brilliance defensively is rivaled by only a few in the big leagues, as he might win a Gold Glove this year. And now, Buxton is a dangerous offensive player.
What should we expect from expected Yankees starter Luis Severino?
He has been somewhat lost in the Corey Kluber-Chris Sale race for the Cy Young, but Severino has the third-best ERA (2.98) in the league, a WHIP of 1.04, a 14-6 record and has held opposing hitters to a .208 batting average. He is, on average, the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the game this season; he has thrown more pitches 100-plus mph from the seventh inning on than all the other starting pitchers combined. His slider and his changeup each make his heater even more effective, and if you look for something off-speed against him, you have no shot to catch up to the fastball. He is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game and, for the most part, seems unfazed by pressurized situations.
Prediction: Yankees in one.