Twins need more than Santana


Why the Twins could win: Two words -- Johan Santana. He's the best pitcher in baseball, and if he and the Twins win his two starts in this series, the Yankees would have to sweep the other three games against the Twins' other quality starters, Brad Radke and Carlos Silva. While Minnesota's bullpen generally lacks postseason experience, it is deep, it's balanced with lefties and righties, and it's got some good power arms, from Juan Rincon to closer Joe Nathan. And the Twins catch the ball, especially in the outfield, with Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones.

Why the Yankees could win: They are probably the only team in the playoffs that could muscle its way to the championship, wearing down the starting pitchers and then hammering the weaker members of the staff. There are no holes in New York's lineup, which amassed a club-record 241 homers, from Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield at the top to the methodical John Olerud and Miguel Cairo at the bottom. And while the Yankees' pitching is not what it once was, clearly, they still have the greatest reliever in major-league history, Mariano Rivera, ready to get the last six outs. About 25 percent of all playoff games, from October 1996 onward, have included a blown save; the Yankees, on the other hand, have four blown saves in postseason games, only two by Rivera.

Late innings: Nathan pitched exceptionally during the regular season, 44 saves in 47 chances, an ERA of 1.62, an opponents' batting average of .187, 89 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings. Rincon was terrific, as well, going 11-6 in middle relief, punching out 106 batters in 82 innings. But they've never held these roles in the glare of October, and you won't know whether they can handle it until you look in their eyes in the late innings the next few days. For the Yankees, Tanyon Sturtze has come on strongly at the end of the year, developing a cutter with advice from Rivera, holding opponents scoreless in his last 10 2/3 innings. But Yankees manager Joe Torre tends to limit his trust in the postseason, and in a close game against Boston 10 days ago, Torre may have hinted at his October bullpen strategy. With Paul Quantrill struggling, he called on Tom Gordon to pitch the seventh and eighth innings, and wanted Rivera for the ninth. It may be that the Yankees will have a two-man 'pen late in games, with Gordon and Rivera responsible for the last nine outs.

Style points: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will sometimes play for a run at a time, but with Justin Morneau in the middle of his lineup, rather than Doug Mientkiewicz, he's more apt to let his bangers swing away. The Twins were sixth in the AL in sac bunts, fourth in stolen bases. The Yankees swing away and go for big innings, partly because their starting pitching is so suspect; they need all the runs they can get. Jeter and A-Rod will look for opportunities to steal bases, and with runners on base, Cairo can be counted on to move them along -- he led the majors in productive out percentage, at .531.

Head-on: The Twins lost four of the six games they played against New York, including the last four, but they actually outscored the Yankees in the six games between the two teams, 36-33, with Corey Koskie hitting .588 against New York and Shannon Stewart hitting .714 (In fact, all three of the other AL playoff teams outscored the Yankees in head-to-head play). Hideki Matsui and Sheffield each slammed three homers in six games against the Twins, and Olerud hit .353.

X-factor: The Yankees desperately need two or three pitchers to step forward and throw well this October, because right now, they have no idea what they're going to get out of Orlando Hernandez, he of the tired arm; Kevin Brown, the wall-puncher who threw six good innings against Toronto Sunday; and Quantrill, who has been raked since July.

The pivot men: If Radke's command is good, he will give the Twins two tough starters. But he's the type of pitcher who, if his control is suspect, will get wrecked by the Yankees' offensive machine.

Nagging injuries: Sheffield has a bad left shoulder, to go along with the problems of Brown and Hernandez.

Writer's block: The Yankees' veteran hitters will probably be very patient with Santana, in the same way they are patient with Pedro Martinez, in an attempt to drive up his pitch count. And conversely, the Twins have many young or overaggressive hitters who may or may not be anxious in the pressure of October. If Minnesota wins both games Santana pitches, they can beat the Yankees. Otherwise, they will go down. YANKEES IN FOUR.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.