Good Luck, Boys

The Twins stack up just fine against the A's--if you ignore a few nagging details.

Last week at the Dome, after it had become apparent that Oakland would indeed be the Twins first-round playoff opponent, manager Ron Gardenhire mentioned that Paul Molitor was on the road, preparing an advanced scouting report on the Athletics. Gardenhire noted that he already had a pretty good inkling regarding the contents of Molitor's dispatch. "I'm pretty sure Paul's just going to say, 'Good luck,'" Gardenhire said.

It's a shame, really, that the Twins and A's have to meet in the first round. There aren't two playoff teams more deserving of a baseball fan's zeal. Oakland actually has a slightly lower payroll than the Twins, but both teams are at the bottom of baseball's salary pig pile, ranking 27th and 28th out of 30 teams (only the woeful Expos and Devil Rays have lower payrolls). Both teams play in outdated stadiums designed for football, and draw comparatively poorly; despite a 100-win season the Athletics averaged only 26,787 for 81 dates at the Coliseum, while the Twins drew 23,758 a game in the Dome. Only one team with a winning record ­the Expos--drew fewer fans than the Twins and the A's.

You also won't find two clubhouses full of more exuberant and charismatic characters. Both teams were assembled by two of the most creative and respected general managers in the game, Oakland's Billy Beane (a former Twin) and Minnesota's Terry Ryan. The Twins, of course, survived the threat of contraction and went from a floundering franchise emblematic of everything that was wrong with baseball to a model of small-market ingenuity. Oakland overcame the defection of marquee players Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, not to mention a September dogfight with the Anaheim Angels, and rode its tremendous starting rotation ­and an MVP season from shortstop Miguel Tejada--to the American League West title, actually improving on their 2001 record in the process.

You'd be hard pressed to find anybody fool enough to actually pick the Twins to upset the A's. Home-field advantage in a five-game series is huge, and Oakland manager Art Howe's decision to go with a three-man rotation of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito in the first round means that the Twins will have to find a way to beat a couple of those guys ­two of them dreaded lefthanders-- twice. That said, a close look at the numbers indicates that the Twins actually stack up reasonably well against Oakland. Minnesota had a higher batting average (.272 to Oakland's .261) and slugging percentage (.437 to .432), and while Oakland did have a better earned run average (3.68 to 4.12), the difference isn't all that significant considering the Twins health travails with their starters. Howe clearly doesn't have a lot of faith in his middle relief corps, and tends to leave his starters out there to work their way out of jams. Twins relievers pitched 120 more innings than their Oakland counterparts, and the obvious key is to keep games close and find a way to get the Oakland starters out of the game.

Both teams play sound fundamental baseball and excellent defense, and neither Gardenhire nor Howe has had much interest or success in the running game. The Twins stole 79 bases this year (a big falloff from last season) while the Athletics swiped only 46. As I've said before, I'm not that worried about the Twins pitching; they might actually be deeper from top to bottom than Oakland ­Kyle Lohse, a guy who won 13 games for the team and was one of the best September performers, isn't even in the playoff rotation, and Minnesota has a decided edge in the bullpen, should games be decided in the middle or late innings. Brad Radke, the game one starter, appears to be sharp, and is fresher than he's ever been this late in the season, having pitched only 118 innings after pitching more than 200 in each of the last six seasons.

Gardenhire obviously can't let games get out of hand, but he has the numbers in his bullpen if one of his starters falters, and in that regard the short series works to the Twins advantage as well.

There are some glaring concerns, too, and I certainly don't agree with Gardenhire's apparent decision to start rookie Michael Cuddyer in right field over either Bobby Kielty or Dustan Mohr. Cuddyer's looked like a player the last couple weeks, but this is a kid who spent much of the year in Edmonton. Mohr hit the wall the last month of the season, batting only .204 in September with a .352 slugging percentage, but he's a hustling, hard-nosed player the Twins like to have on the field. In a short series, when runs figure to be scarce, I'd start Kielty, a switch hitter whose .405 on base percentage led the team, and who came up with two game-winning home runs in the last home stand. Despite only 289 regular season at bats, Kielty's 52 walks were third best on the team, and his willingness to take pitches and work the count make him an invaluable igniter on a team of notorious free swingers. I'd be more comfortable with his left-handed bat in the line-up against the right-handed Hudson on Tuesday, but Gardenhire often works in mysterious ways, and who am I to argue with a guy who won 94 games in his rookie season?

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