Stars May Align for Twins in Playoffs
Maybe the Minnesota Twins can start a new kind of momentum this week. The club has lost 16 consecutive postseason games dating back to 2004, but multiple positives are in place as the Twins await the Tuesday start of their best of three opening playoff series against the Houston Astros.
All games will be at Target Field—and talk about being comfy at home, the Twins were a MLB-best 24-7 in Minneapolis. With a season record of 36-24, Minnesota is among the World Series favorites and regarded as a top five MLB team. The Astros, 29-31 this season, have stumbled into the expanded MLB playoff field and been awful on the road, winning nine games and losing 23.
The Astros are defending AL champions but don’t have the same roster as last year. Among the most significant changes is that Kate Upton’s husband, pitching ace Justin Verlander, is unavailable and scheduled for Tommy John surgery. That’s a major loss for the Astros, particularly in a short playoff series.
Despite their “Bomba Squad” reputation, the Twins have transformed their identity a bit from the 2019 MLB home run record team. This year’s edition can brag on its pitching, too. By most metrics the Twins staff is among the best in baseball, including an ERA of 3.54 that ranks No. 4 among MLB’s 30 teams, per Espn.com. The Astros rank No. 13 with an ERA of 4.31.
If Twins starter Kenta Maeda, with bullpen help, can stop the 0-16 streak in the series opener, that will be a confidence booster for both the club and its fans. In his first season with the Twins Maeda has emerged as the staff’s best starter, with an impressive 6-1 record and 2.70 ERA. He has been steady in performance and calm in demeanor. “I think my command was there throughout the season,” Maeda said this afternoon.
The ex-Los Angeles Dodger has 24 games of playoff experience, including appearances in seven World Series games. The majority of postseason outings were in relief but he does have three starts. Overall, the 32-year-old Japanese-born right-hander has a 2-1 playoff record and 3.31 ERA.
Another success story for the pitching-deep Twins is Tyler Duffey. Once an ineffective starter, it took Duffey awhile to emerge as a go-to reliever. Even in 2018 Duffey’s stats out of the bullpen included a 7.20 ERA, but last year with improved throwing velocity it dropped to 2.50. During the second half of the 2019 season he was the fifth most valuable reliever in baseball, per FanGraphs and MLB.com. This year the 29-year-old right-hander has a career-best ERA number of 1.88.
The “Bomba Boys” hit 91 home runs during the 60-game season, sixth best in MLB, per Espn.com. That is 22 better than the Astros, with the two teams having similar batting averages—Minnesota .242 and Houston .240. But the Twins were mediocre this season in scoring runs, ranking No. 18 in the majors and 10 fewer than the Astros produced.
It was frequently home run-or-bust at the plate, with too few hitters reaching base via singles and doubles. But another upbeat omen for the Twins is that slap the ball to all fields Luis Arraez is on a seven-game hitting streak and finished the season batting .321.
The Astros have a lineup of difficult to strike out hitters but Maeda may not be fazed by that. He doesn’t concentrate on strikeouts, just getting batters out. That’s the mentality of a staff ace but Maeda ducked the label today after being asked, even though he deserves the recognition.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Duffey said. “His preparation day-to-day, it seems like he’s always doing something to get ready for his next outing. Watching him pitch it’s weird, he just doesn’t miss.
“It’s pretty incredible and he throws five or six pitches, you can’t really tell. Everything is darting left and right. But guys have had a hard time getting to him all year so I think we can do nothing but to expect that again. ..”
Despite significant injuries throughout the season, the Twins won a second consecutive AL Central Division title. Even entering the playoffs there are uncertainties about the availabilities of center fielder Byron Buxton, third baseman Josh Donaldson and starter Jake Odorizzi. Another good omen for the Twins would be seeing a couple of those players back on the field soon.
Asked about Buxton possibly playing behind him tomorrow, Maeda first mentioned the recent hot hitting by the center fielder. Then he quickly referenced Buxton’s “phenomenal” fielding and suggested Buxton’s presence improves the Twins’ defense “10 times more than other guys.”
Last year the Twins dealt with deafening crowd noise in their three-game playoff at Yankee Stadium. Duffey acknowledged the environment as difficult and likened it to the engine roar of an airplane. This year the Twins are playing at home, even though they will be without the energy of their fans. Still, they have to be happy not playing in Yankee Stadium.
Tuesday’s game is a 1 p.m. start televised by ABC, with Wednesday having a noon start on ESPN2.