Twins vs. Yankees: ALDS Game 1 Preview

Debate rages in baseball circles about what game is most important in the diminutive, five-game battles that are the League Divisional Series.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that these babies should be seven games given that it took six months for a club to get here.  What's a few more days at this stage?

My belief is that -- aside from a deciding Game 5 -- the most pivotal of these showdowns is generally Game 2, in that the losing team in Game 1 basically needs to salvage their season with a win in the next contest.  Yet for this Twins vs. Yankees match-up, I'm going against my own take and looking at tonight as holding the most gravity for this ALDS.

Given that the Twins are 2-14 against the Pinstripes in their past 16 matchups and just 2-9 versus New York in their previous playoff series' of 2003, 2004 and 2009 -- there is an unquestionable need for the Boys to grab their home field advantage with vigor, and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Here's how the showdown sets up for tonight:

ALDS Game 1 -- New York Yankees @ Minnesota Twins, 7:37 p.m. Central, Target Field (on TBS)
CC Sabathia (LHP 21-7, 3.18 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (LHP, 14-10, 3.62)

Sabathia is a beast is every sense of the word.  With a belt loop for each of his AL-best 21 wins this year, he faces the Twins for the 30th time in his 10-year career tonight.  28 of those starts represent regular season work, for which he sports a lifetime 13-8 mark and a 3.05 ERA versus the Boys. 

The monster lefty (who will likely finish as runner-up for the AL Cy Young) didn't face the Twins this year; his start this eve mark the first time he's taken the hill in Target Field and the first time he's opposed the Twins since the eating the Win in Game 1 of last season ALDS when he went 6.2 innings and allowed a lone earned run.

Prior to his time in the Bronx, Sabathia was something of a playoff pariah.  In his first five career postseason outings with Cleveland and Milwaukee, he was a mere 2-3 with one Quality Start and a chubby 7.92 ERA.  Yet the 'Stripes seemed to have suited his appetite for the second-season.  In five playoff starts for the Yanks last year he went 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA.  All of those outings were Quality Starts.

Given that he's felled the Twins in six straight starts dating to his time with Cleveland in 2007, its little surprise that the wealth of the local nine's lineup has historically struggled with Sabathia.  Orlando Hudson, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young all sport career averages of .222 or worse against him.  Jim Thome offers a mere .148 lifetime line (4-for-27) against Sabathia, although it's worthy of note that all four of those hits were home runs.  Curiously, the only Twin grading an "A" against those C's is reserve Alexi Casilla, who claims a lifetime clip of .692 (9-for-13) with two doubles.  It will be interesting to see how Gardy employs this strange sidebar into his lineup tonight.

Adding a few more lights upon the stage, Twins starter Liriano was named the AL Comeback

Player of the Year on Tuesday.  The award is well deserved given the career-year for "The Franchise."  After going just 5-13 and earning "The Corner Store" moniker herein, the southpaw with the sweet slider scored career-highs in Wins (14), Quality Starts (20), Strikeouts (201) and Innings (191.2) this season.  His past three starts have been brutal, which serves as something of a concern, yet before the murky end run he ran off an 8-0 record after the All Star break.

Liriano has faced the Yanks twice this season, accruing a Quality outing in both although the Twins lost each of those games.  His combined line for those two reads: 13 IP, 17 hits, 5 earned runs, 2 walks and 14 strikeouts.

Game 1 marks Liriano's first career postseason start.  He has just a lone playoff appearance to date, that coming in the Game 1 ALDS loss last season where he promptly allowed a bomb to former Yankee Hideki Matsui.  After that blast, however, Liriano mellowed and quickly retired the next four opposing batsmen. 

A large part of Liriano's success this season can be attributed to his line against left handed hitters.  Lefties hit him at a mere .218 in 2010; that Matsui homer marks the last time a lefty went yard against him.

The Yankees will counter with an experienced slew of right handed bats, coming in the forms of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Marcus Thames, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, and Jorge Posada -- the latter three of whom are switch hitters.  While neither A-Roid (0-for-3) nor Teixeira (3-for-18) have fared well against Liriano -- Jeter, Swisher, Posada and Thames hit at a combined .367 clip.

While Game 1 finds Francisco Liriano making his first career playoff start, for Derek Jeter it

represents playoff game No. 139.  Liriano has been brutal in first innings this season, coughing up a .328 average to opposing batters.  Yet in the second inning, that number dips all the way to .225. The Twins can ill-afford any opening nerves stemming from the discrepancy in experience.  The Twins can't afford a freak out with Sabathia on the hill.  

For the Twins to take the first game of this series, they'll need a strong "six-and-fixed" type outing from the lefty.  Liriano has never pitched a complete game, so a solid 18-20 outs should be the expectation. The Yanks were one of three teams to hit 200+ home runs this season (201), although the duel facts that Liriano is an excellent ground ball pitcher and that Target Field ranked as the least-friendly HR park this season should (hopefully) assuage that number.

Six strong innings of one or two run ball and let the bullpen take hold from there.  No pressure on Liriano tonight.  The club's three World Series appearances aside, this is only one of the most important games in the Twins' 50-year history.  

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