Tuesday, October 3, 2017

AL Wild-Card Preview

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 Preseason projections were low for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees for varying reasons.

When forecasts were made, Minnesota and New York were not supposed to plan for a postseason game.

The Twins were coming off a disastrous 103-loss season while the Yankees were transitioning to a younger core.

Both teams defied projections by claiming the two wild-card spots in the American League, with the reward being an elimination game Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

The winner advances to the AL Division Series against the Cleveland Indians.

The Yankees started off strong, winning 21 of their first 30 and improving their mark to 38-23 by June 12. They slumped for about a month, were 45-40 at the All-Star break and finished with a 21-8 surge to get to 91-71.

It resulted in their most successful regular season since 2012, which ended with a trip to the ALCS. Since then, the Yankees missed the playoffs in three of the next four seasons and their only postseason game since 2012 occurred when they were shut out by the Houston Astros in the 2015 wild-card game.

For the Twins (85-77), it was a different path to their first postseason berth since 2010.

The Twins hovered near .500 most of the first three months but were 3-9 from July 23 to Aug. 5. After management opted to become a seller at the trade deadline, Minnesota responded by winning 13 of 17 to go over .500 for good. The Twins went 33-21 after Aug. 5 and finished five games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels.

"I think some guys were a little more upset than others, but they've responded," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Whatever your motivation is, that's fine."

Both teams did it with a mix of youth and some veterans.

When the Yankees last won a playoff game, Aaron Judge was a few months away from starting his junior season at Fresno State, Gary Sanchez just completed his third minor league season and Luis Severino had 14 starts under his belt in the Dominican Summer League.

Five years later, Judge broke the rookie home run record by slugging 52, including 33 at home and 15 in his final month after slumping in August.

Sanchez belted 33 homers despite missing most of April with a biceps injury and did it after hitting 20 in 53 games last season.

Severino emerged as the ace by going 14-6, striking out 230 and posting a 2.98 ERA. He achieved those numbers after going 0-8 as a starting pitcher last season following 11 decent starts in the final two months of 2015.

When the Twins last reached the playoffs, Eddie Rosario just completed his first minor league season in the Gulf Coast League as did Miguel Sano. Brian Dozier was slightly more advanced in the minors in 2010 and reached the majors in 2012.

This season, Rosario slugged 16 of his 27 homers in the final two months. Sano hit 28 before missing a month with a shin injury that might keep him out of the starting lineup while Dozier launched half of his 34 homers in the final two months of the season.

The pitching matchup also is a contrast of youth and experience.

Severino was on the postseason roster for New York's wild-card loss in 2015 and earned the starting assignment for this game by going 9-2 with a 2.28 ERA in his final 14 starts.

"We've been really pleased with how he's done, how he's matured as a pitcher, his ability to slow things down, and that will become very important tomorrow," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

After getting some offseason tips from Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, Severino finished third in the American League in ERA, placed fourth in strikeouts, third in hits per nine innings (6.98) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.51).

"He told me that, if I change my mechanics a little bit, I'll be more consistent in my strike zone," Severino said. "That's what I did, and that's how that worked out and helped me."

The right-hander's lone experience against the Twins occurred on Sept. 20 in New York and turned in his second-shortest start. He allowed three runs in three innings while throwing 71 pitches, including 13 to Mauer, who hit an RBI single off him.

Ervin Santana completed his third season with Minnesota by going 16-8 with a 3.28 ERA that was the second-lowest of his career and a 1.13 WHIP that also was his second-lowest of his career.

Santana went 5-1 with his last 12 starts. The one loss occurred Sept. 18 in New York when Santana allowed two runs on seven hits in 5 2/3 innings. One of those runs was Judge's 44th homer.

In the regular season, Santana is 6-10 with a 5.66 ERA in 20 starts against the Yankees.

During the postseason, Santana is 2-2 with 5.56 ERA in eight games (two starts). Against the Yankees in postseason play, he pitched 5 1/3 relief innings and recorded the win for the Angels in Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS and was 1-1 in a pair of relief outings with that club in the 2009 ALCS.

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