NEW YORK – There’s at least one surprise American League team in the postseason this year — and, yes, you can argue that the Twins belong in that category as well.
The Twins’ rebound from 103 losses in 2016 is one of the stories of the season, and it is going to get Paul Molitor some votes for American League Manager of the Year. But the Yankees weren’t expected to make it this far, either. After losing to Toronto on Sunday in the season finale, New York finished 91-70, only two games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.
No one saw that finish coming. Not with the Red Sox in the same division. Not with Toronto and Baltimore in the wild-card game a year ago.
“We came to spring training knowing we had a lot of good players,” corner infielder Chase Headley said. “I think the expectation here is that, every year, to give yourselves [a chance] to win a championship, and you have to make the playoffs first to do that.
“I think from outside a lot of people were skeptical, but we knew we had some big-time players in here.”
New York won 84 games last season with the skeletal remains of Mark Teixeira (age 36) and Alex Rodriguez (40) in the lineup, with Carlos Beltran (39) playing a supporting role and only one starting pitcher posting double-digit wins. The Yankees looked outgunned in this battle.
Enter the Baby Bombers.
Aaron Judge, with 52 homers, and Gary Sanchez, with 33, set a record for homers by a pair of teammates under 25. Judge, with 114 RBI, also is in the MVP discussion. Shortstop Didi Gregorious hit 25 homers. The Yankees, with veterans such as Headley, Matt Holliday and Todd Frazier adding some pop, led the majors with 241 home runs this season. But the Yankees, who have been to the postseason only once over the past four seasons, will have several key players who aren’t used to the spotlight.
“I want everyone to experience this,” said Frazier, who reached the postseason with the Reds in 2012 and 2013. “It is like a whole new season and it’s a lot of fun. It’s tough to explain because every pitch is blown up 100 times. Every call. Every defensive play.
“It’s just a crazy atmosphere and no matter how you win, you just want to win.”
The rotation has three pitchers with at least 13 victories, which includes 23-year old Luis Severino, who is dripping with talent. The bullpen is loaded with big arms —the relievers’ average fastball velocity of 95.4 miles per hour was tops in the league. So either with a 450-foot homer or 98-mph fastball, this team can take you down, and take you down hard.
“Guys are confident,” Headley said. “Guys are healthy. We are feeling good about where we are. We also know that this game coming up, anything can happen. We have to come out and play our game and come out on top.”
Headley is not a fan of the one-game format, using the phrase “anything can happen” several times Sunday. It would appear the Twins will need a lot to happen in their favor in order to leave the Bronx with a victory and a meeting with division foe Cleveland in the AL Division Series.
But that is what worries Headley. They could run into a strong outing by Twins righthander Ervin Santana, who will start Tuesday, or have the ball bounce funny at the wrong time.
“That’s a good team,” Headley said of the Twins. “I think the turnaround they have had this year has been very impressive. A lot of really good young players with some really good veteran players. We know it is going to be a fight.
“One game. Anything can happen, so we respect them. Hopefully we can go out and play our game.”