The Twins might not allow themselves to think about this 100 percent until a playoff berth is fully secured and the magic number is zero instead of one, but chances are they’ve already invested at least some thought into how they should line up their pitching for a one-game playoff in New York and potentially beyond.
If I had it my way — and unless someone has given me a promotion to the top of the Twins’ organizational chart that I don’t know about, I do not have things my way — this is how I would stack things up with the pitching:
*Ervin Santana starts against the Yankees. This is pretty much a no-brainer and it’s how the Twins have had their rotation set up for weeks. If he’s cruising and the Twins have a significant lead, he stays in. But the Yankees have a way of grinding teams down and getting pitch counts up. The Twins should plan for Santana to only pitch four or five innings, at which point they hand the ball to Jose Berrios.
Berrios hasn’t been pitching very deep into games lately as his innings have mounted, but he is the Twins’ best hope of navigating the middle-to-late innings. Unlike the Yankees, the Twins don’t have a bunch of 100 mph relievers to blaze through the final three innings. Berrios has fantastic stuff, and as a 2-3 inning guy for this game, he could be devastating. The Twins need to go all-in on this game, and that means they can’t pitch anyone they don’t trust. If that means burning through the guys who have been their top two starters most of the year, so be it.
If it works and the Twins manage to win in that Yankee Stadium house of horrors, using Santana and Berrios doesn’t leave the Twins in as bad of shape for the ALDS and beyond as you might think.
The Wild Card game is Tuesday. The ALDS starts Thursday on the road at either Cleveland or Houston, with Game 2 Friday. Game 3 is at Target Field on Sunday. That means Santana could pitch the Wild Card game and still be on regular rest for Game 3.
So then you go with this:
*Kyle Gibson in Game 1 of the ALDS. This would have been inconceivable at various points this season, but Gibson has been the Twins’ hottest pitcher over the last month, with a 7-0 record and 2.56 ERA in his last seven starts and at least six innings pitched in each of those games.
*Bartolo Colon in Game 2 of the ALDS, with Adalberto Mejia ready at the first sign of trouble – almost the same strategy as the Wild Card game, albeit with pitchers who have more question marks. Colon helped save the Twins’ season when they needed stability in the rotation, but he has a 13.50 ERA in his last four outings spanning a total of just 12 innings. Even when he’s been “on” this season, Colon has had a handful of games where he cruised through the early innings before running into trouble. Mejia, too, tends to be good for 4-5 innings. Between the two of them, the Twins have a chance.
Using this strategy, the Twins would be rolling the dice that they could split two games in Cleveland or Houston with what have been their No. 3, No. 4 and possibly No. 5 starters against Cleveland and Houston’s top two starters.
But: The Indians already have the edge against any Twins pitcher when Corey Kluber starts, and they probably have an edge when No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco (17-6, 3.43 ERA, 212 strikeouts) pitches. Houston would have the same with Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, assuming those are their first two pitchers. So why not hope you can pull off the unexpected — knock around one of those aces or get into a tight game that your bullpen wins or get a huge pitching performance from a lesser starter — and to back to Minnesota tied 1-1 with some real leverage?
*Regardless of where the series stood, the Twins would have Santana in Game 3 — either with a chance to take a commanding lead or at least cut the deficit to 2-1 with a more favorable pitching matchup.
*If you get to a Game 4, you have Berrios at Target Field as your starter. He has an 8-1 record and 2.45 ERA at home this season; on the road, his ERA is more than double that (5.17), which I’ll admit is a more helpful stat for the Twins in this game than it is when considering Berrios for relief at Yankee Stadium. Regardless, he’s been lights-out at home and has the stuff to shut down even great lineups. He could be in position to either close out a series or send it to a Game 5.
*In Game 5, the Twins would be back to Gibson against an opposing team’s ace. Again, that’s a lot to ask. But I think this pitching plan gives the Twins the best chance to win both a one-game playoff and a five-game series, while also setting up Santana and Berrios to potentially pitch Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS on full rest and skipping the Colon/Mejia spot (Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS are on Oct. 8 and 9, while Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS are Oct. 13 and 14, giving each pitcher four days off in between).
And then maybe the World Series isn’t that crazy?
But let’s not get that far ahead of ourselves.