Minnesota fans are painfully aware of the Twins’ playoff history against the Yankees. The Twins won the AL Central six times between 2002 and 2010. And in four of those seasons — 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 — the Yankees knocked them out of the playoffs in the division series, going 12-2 in the process. Having helped cover the vast majority of those playoff games — often drawing the assignment of covering the Yankees clubhouse — I’m well aware of the Twins’ history and the hold the Yankees have had on them.
The Twins are back in the playoffs for the first time since that last defeat at the hands of the Yankees, so naturally … they have to play the Yankees. Minnesota fans are taking three approaches to Tuesday’s game at Yankee Stadium: 1) Gloom and doom based on past history. 2) Talking themselves into optimism. 3) Declaring the season is already a success and not investing heavily in whether Tuesday is a win or loss.
To me, this one-game wild card game is fascinating from a number of different angles, with the matchup against the Yankees being chief among them. In order to explore that further, I chatted Monday morning with ESPN’s Buster Olney, who covered the dynasty Yankees of the 1990s and early 2000s for the New York Times and is very familiar with their history with the Twins.
The conversation underscored three key themes heading into Tuesday as we think about this game:
THE HISTORY MEANS LESS THAN YOU PROBABLY THINK
The Yankees’ playoff history against the Twins is filled with a few big “what-if” moments for the Twins, but mostly it’s built around a massive disparity in both payroll and playoff success that existed between the past rosters of the two teams.
“It felt like in the previous meetings it’s just the Yankees were deeper and they had more stars and we knew why — they always spent more on payroll,” Olney said. “The margin for error was so close for Twins — like one bad call for an umpire down the left field line. You had to have everything go right for the Twins.”
Those Yankees teams that beat the Twins — though only one went on to win the World Series in those four seasons — were built on veteran talent and had years of postseason success upon which to draw.
Going into this year, though, the Yankees had missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons. In the other, they lost a one-game wild card playoff.
“The Yankees still spend a lot of money and have a huge payroll but they’re heavily reliant on young players. This year the Yankees are (Aaron) Judge, (Luis) Severino and (Gary) Sanchez. They have high-priced guys around the edges, but this year it’s a more level playing field with the Twins,” Olney said. “They always had so much more postseason experience. They would have been shocked if they would have lost to the Twins back then. This group of Yankee players hasn’t had much success in the postseason, and the guys we just talked about have no postseason success.”
Only one Twins player, by the way, was on both the 2010 and 2017 postseason roster: Joe Mauer.
ONE GAME IS BETTER THAN FIVE IF YOU’RE THE TWINS
The Yankees might be young, but they are still mighty. They closed by winning 20 of 28 games, including a three-game sweep of the Twins in September at Yankee Stadium. They won 91 games overall, and their scoring margin suggested they should have won 100. Their bullpen is devastating. Over the course of several games, they quite possibly present too many matchup problems for the Twins to handle.
But this is not five games. It’s one. The Twins actually won Game 1 against the Yankees twice in Yankee Stadium back in the day (2003 and 2004, believe me I was there and it happened). They just couldn’t finish the job.
“This is very much different. It’s a completely different situation,” Olney said. “This is not an extended series and depth doesn’t manifest itself as much in a winner-take-all game. One game is a coin flip. One ball bounces the wrong way and something crazy happens and everything changes.”
HERE’S HOW THE TWINS CAN WIN, BUT …
Lest you think we’re painting too optimistic a picture here, that isn’t the intent. The history is largely irrelevant and one game is better than five, but the Twins are still underdogs. It feels like there is one specific path to victory for Minnesota, but that route has more potholes than Interstate-94 after a harsh winter.
First, as Olney notes, Ervin Santana has struggled mightily in the new Yankee Stadium, going 0-5 with a 6.43 ERA in six starts. Part of that is facing good hitters. Part of that is the type of pitcher Santana is, which has nothing to do with nerves or anything else the playoffs might bring.
“Ervin has to pitch against his history,” Olney said. “He’s a fly ball pitcher in a park that’s unforgiving to right-handed fly ball pitchers. I’m curious to see how Paul Molitor will manage this game given that dynamic. Will he go quickly (to another pitcher)?”
So the Twins need Santana to do well in a park that doesn’t suit him, and they’ll need to build a lead against Severino — who has 230 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA, though who also struggled against the Twins last month.
“I asked a Yankees guy how Severino will handle the moment as a high-adrenaline guy, and they really don’t know how he’s going to respond. You’ve seen guys like that respond poorly,” Olney said. “I wonder if there will be an advantage there for Santana over Severino.”
Every team wants to play with a lead, but it will be particularly important for the Twins because of New York’s dominant bullpen. The Twins have been resilient all season, but it’s hard to see them winning this game if they don’t have a lead after six innings.
“You have to get a lead if you’re the Twins — not only to create some anxiety in the at-bats of Yankees but to avoid the impact of the bullpen,” Olney said.
If you think it still feels like a familiarly thin margin for error for a Twins team in Yankee Stadium in October, you’re right. If you think it feels as daunting as it used to against Derek Jeter and co. in those five-game series? I’d say you’re wrong.