NEW YORK — Let’s say that the Twins’ bats are on fire right from the start Tuesday in their American League Wild Card game against the Yankees. They string together a few hits, connect on a couple of big blows and take advantage of the talented, but largely inexperienced starter, in 23-year old Yankees righthander Luis Severino.
It still will not be time to make travel plans for the American League Division Series opener in Cleveland. Not just yet.
While it’s usually a good thing to knock out a starter, especially in a playoff game, it’s something entirely different when Yankees manager Joe Girardi activates his bullpen. The group is unquestionably the best in baseball and is more of a threat to the Twins playoff advancement than Severino.
“We have a lot of big-time arms and a lot of guys who can get big-time outs,” said infielder Chase Headley. “It’s certainly an advantage for us, but you still have to go out and get those outs.”
The Yankees relief corps is headed by closer Aroldis Chapman, the only pitcher in baseball who can uncork a string of 103 miles per hour fastballs. But he’s supported by righthanders Dellin Betances (whose fastball averages 98.5 miles per hour) and David Robertson, two guys talented enough to close on most other teams.
Those three would be enough for a team to boast a great bullpen. But there’s more.
Chad Green (95.3 mph fastball) can pitch multiple innings. Tommy Kahnle (97.9) averaged 13.79 strikeouts per nine innings during the regular season. Chasen Shreve (92.7) is the only lefthander of the group — but who needs more than one lefty when there’s so much power to choose from? And Adam Warren (93.0) was recently activated from the disabled list and can pitch more than one inning.
New York can make games five-inning affairs for their starters because of their powerful riches in the bullpen. Teams usually rejoice when they knock the starter out to get to the bullpen. It might be the other way around with the Yankees — their bullpen rejoices.
“The bullpen is the strength of our team,” Yankees lefthander C.C. Sabathia said after a recent game, “and us as starters we are just trying to get deep into the game and get those guys in decent situations, Fortunately, it has been working.”
As a group, Yankees relievers held opponents to a league-low .201 batting average. Their 653 strikeouts are second most. Their 0.85 home runs per nine innings is the lowest ratio in the league.
That gives Yankees manager Joe Girardi the ability to pull a starter at the first sign of trouble, which has been a topic since Severino will be on the mound Tuesday. When facing the Twins on Sept. 20, Severino lasted just three innings as he struggled to find the plate. If that happens again, Girardi could go to his bullpen earlier.
“I don’t think about throwing five innings then the bullpen comes in,” Severino said. “I’m thinking long. I want to go as long as possible in the game then let the bullpen do its job.”
It has not all been smooth sailing for the Yankees bullpen. Chapman lost his closing job in August for about a month, as Betances filled in. But Betances’ fastball command has been so off that he’s thrown more sliders (53.8 percent) than fastballs (46.2) this season. Robertson, who no longer relies on his fastball as much, threw his curveball a career high 46.3 percent of the time this season.
As the inevitable late-inning matchups take place on Tuesday, the Twins will be looking for the reliever whose control might be a little off or will give them something to hit in a key situation.
“It’s going to be good,” Twins outfielder Byron Buxton said. “I really can’t say too much about the matchups. I know we are ready to go and that we have done our homework on them. We just have to wait and see.
“It’s not like they are unhittable. We are just going to keep doing what they do.”