The Twins weren't supposed to make the playoffs when they were 27-34 on June 10. They weren't supposed to make the playoffs when they lost Francisco Liriano for the first time ... or for the second time. And yet here they are, AL Central champs and holding home-field advantage over Oakland in the Division Series.
The Twins have the three best players in the series in Johan Santana, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The A's have the weakest offense of any postseason team. Both teams have great bullpens; each is missing a major component (Liriano for the Twins, Bobby Crosby for the A's).
When the Twins are up
• It's all about the heart of the Twins' order. Look for Mauer, Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Torii Hunter to do most of the damage for the Twins. If that's not the case, they're going to struggle to score enough runs to win.
• The Twins' hitters don't draw many walks, which means a smart pitcher who gets ahead can expand the zone and get the Twins' hitters -- even their better hitters, like Cuddyer and Hunter -- to chase.
• The Twins also have at least one major hole in their lineup in almost every game, either in left field or at the DH spot. Either Rondell White or Phil Nevin is usually in the lineup, and neither one can hit a lick. It's an unnecessary surrender, so if either of those guys falls into a hot streak, the Twins become a better team than they are on paper.
When the A's are up
• If Santana's pitching, this could be a quick affair. He pounds the strike zone and misses bats, while the A's depend on getting some free passes and capitalizing on pitchers' mistakes.
• Beyond Santana, though, the A's have opportunities against the Twins' other starters. Brad Radke is all guts and guile at this point, as his stuff is well below-average and extremely hittable. Carlos Silva has had trouble getting his sinker to sink, and when he elevates the ball, he's hittable and homer-prone. Boof Bonser has thrown well since his recall, but had command and control issues earlier in the season. The weak A's offense needs that kind of break to give their starters the big run support they'll need.
• The Twins' pitchers throw strikes; the A's hitters take walks, led by Nick Swisher's team-high 97. Whichever side wins that battle probably will win the series.
Keys for the Twins
• Take a pitch. Other than Dan Haren, the A's playoff starters are all prone to issuing free passes, so if Barry Zito (second in the AL in walks allowed this year) is a little wild, the Twins have to be willing to take their walks and force Zito (or Esteban Loaiza or Rich Harden) to give them something to hit.
• Get the lead after six. Juan Rincon-Jesse Crain-Dennys Reyes-Joe Nathan, in whatever order, is the best bullpen among the playoff teams, and Pat Neshek is a great tactical weapon to supplement those guys. If the Twins have the lead after six innings, they should win that game.
• Have a backup plan. Silva and Radke are both big question marks, and soft righties are not what you want to throw up against the A's. The Twins need to have someone ready -- probably Matt Garza -- so that manager Ron Gardenhire can put a tourniquet on an early deficit and keep his team in the game.
Keys for the A's
• Santana only can pitch only twice, so the easiest way for the A's to take the series is by winning the other three games. On the other hand, the A's have been a much better offensive team this year against left-handed starters. It's just a difficult matchup for them, given that the one lefty they'll face happens to be the best pitcher in baseball.
• Because the A's offense is so weak, the A's pitchers have to minimize the impact of the top and bottom of the Twins' lineup. Luis Castillo, Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett and Jason Tyner are all slap hitters with way below-average power and below-average plate discipline; those are the relatively easy outs that the Twins offer their opponents, and if those guys aren't on base for the Mauer-Hunter stretch of hitters, the A's will be able to stay in games.
• Rich Harden looked good in his second return start last week, but was shelled in his tuneup start Sunday, so he's a big question mark for the postseason. He's expected to pitch, but the A's can ill afford a repeat of his 3 2/3-inning, six-walk effort on Sunday against Anaheim.
The A's haven't been able to pull off a Division Series win in their last four trips, and they've usually been felled by odd events or bad luck. Their bad luck this time is in an unfavorable matchup; Cinderella gets to go to the ball in the Bronx next week. Twins in four.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.