As the Yankees have continued slouching toward October, I've cheered myself a bit by thinking that the wild card might be a better way to enter this year's playoffs anyway. After all, is it really so clear that playing a short series with home field advantage against Cliff Lee's Rangers is preferable to playing a short series as the visiting team against the ace-less Twins? Particularly in a year when the pressure on the top of the Yankees' rotation will be even more intense than it was last year (when they relied on a 3-man rotation throughout October), a short series in which Lee negates CC is a scary prospect – scarier than having to beat the Twins in their own backyard, which the Yankees have done well in Octobers past.
But as my take on the Twins has shifted from viewing them as a team on a streak to acknowledging them as a powerhouse rolling through the last 2.5 months of the season, I've started to wonder.
When Andy Pettitte went down in the 3rd inning of the Yanks' July 18 game against the Rays, the Yankees were already 24 games above .500 at 57-33 and were ahead of the 55-35 Rays by 2 games in the standings. The Minnesota Twins? They were only 5 games above .500 at 48-43.
Since that day the Yanks have gone 30-25 (.545), the Rays have gone 33-18 (.647), and the Twins have rattled off an incredible two months of baseball, going 40-15 (.727) without that ace and without a single game played by Justin Morneau (and lest anyone doubt how much they lost when the 2006 AL MVP went down with a ocncussion on July 7, consider his stats up to that point in the season: .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs).
It pains me deeply to acknowledge that Carl Pavano has re-emerged as a serious top-of-the-rotation guy, but the fact is that together with Liriano, Pavano has led the Twins to within a half-game of the best record in baseball. His 1.5 BB/9 IP ranks him third behind only Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and the Fragile One is tied for 7th place in all of baseball for most IP this season (205.0), largely aided by the fact that he has already thrown as many complete games in 2010 (7) as he had in his entire 11 previous seasons in the major leagues.
And their starting rotation is a metaphor for the 2010 Twins. Yes they have stand-out stars here and there, but it is their team stats – culminating in their team's record – that is so impressive. Their 3.77 team ERA ranks second in the AL behind only the Oakland A's, despite the fact that no one would take a single member of their rotation over the headline-starters from the other AL contenders – Lee, Sabathia, or Price. Their .278 team batting average ties them with Texas for 1st in the AL. They rank second in total hits, third in team OPS (behind Boston and NY), and have won a ton of close games.
While less relevant to their record, I also have to note that it is impossible not to root for Joe Mauer, Mr. hometown-discount who is on track to establishing himself as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history or Jim Thome, who is one of the best clutch hitters in baseball history and an as-yet-untainted modern-age big man who will probably break the 600-HR plateau next season and is one dramatic dinger away from surpassing Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, and Frank Robinson for the most walk-off HRs in baseball history.
Now October is still fundamentally about pitching, and so I think I still lean toward an ALDS match-up vs. Minnesota rather than having to face Lee twice in a short-series, but if the 2010-version of the Minnesota Twins doesn't give you pause as a Yankee fan, you haven't been watching them close enough.