The road to the World Series begins with the Battle for the North.
The chaos of the American League West and Wild Card races finally resolved on Sunday to set up what had seemed to be an unlikely border battle between Canada and the Upper Midwest in the Wild Card Series -- but don’t expect the customary regional politeness to tinge this showdown between two highly motivated teams and fanbases.
The Blue Jays have urgency to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2016 with the star power of their young core; the Twins are, well, under even more pressure to finally end their record-breaking 18-game postseason losing streak that has shrouded the franchise like a dark cloud since it began in 2004.
It’s the pitching staffs that figure to define this series. Both teams had loftier expectations of their offenses entering this year -- but the arms have paved the way for the success of both Minnesota and Toronto, who finished the season ranked first and fourth in the AL, respectively, in runs allowed during the regular season.
Because the Twins had nothing to play for in the final weeks of the regular season and the Blue Jays secured their playoff berth on Saturday night, both teams will have their best starting pitchers fully rested and ready for battle -- strength against strength -- beginning with a high-octane Game 1 showdown between Kevin Gausman and Pablo López, the top two strikeout pitchers in the AL.
Here’s everything you need to know about this matchup.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is set for 4:38 p.m. ET/3:38 p.m. CT on Tuesday, and it will be televised in the U.S. on ESPN. In Canada, the games will be aired on Sportsnet with the radio call available on Sportsnet 590 THE FAN.
All series are available in the US on MLB.TV with authentication to a participating Pay TV provider. Games are available live internationally (except in Canada). Full game archives will be available approximately 90 minutes after the game ends.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Blue Jays: RHP Kevin Gausman
Gausman is the staff ace, without question, and coming off another elite season with a 3.16 ERA and 237 strikeouts over 185 innings. The Twins were the rare team to get to Gausman this season, though, scoring seven runs over 10 innings (6.30 ERA). Most interesting from those numbers is that Gausman walked nine Twins batters between two starts, and while his splitter can be a devastating pitch, Minnesota did well to lay off it in 2023 and force Gausman to adjust.
“They’re a good lineup, and they’re here for a reason,” Gausman said. “This lineup, in particular, can beat you in a lot of different ways. They’ve got a lot of good, young guys who can really swing the bat and put the ball in play. I played with Donovan Solano. I know what he’s capable of -- a really professional hitter. Top to bottom, they can give you a hard time with a lot of left-handed hitters. If you look at the numbers, they’ve been tough on me my whole career.”
Twins: RHP Pablo López
The Twins traded for the right-hander they already viewed as a great pitcher and taught him how to throw a sweeper -- and he responded with an Opening Day nod, a career high in innings pitched (194) and the most strikeouts (234) by any Twins pitcher since his idol Johan Santana in 2007. He earned a four-year contract extension along the way to put him at the helm of this rotation for years to come -- and for this foray into October.
What are the starting lineups?
Blue Jays: Over the past week, the Blue Jays seem to have found a recipe they like at the top of their order. That involves George Springer leading off followed by Brandon Belt, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The thinking here is to get Bichette as many opportunities as possible with runners on base, and the early results have backed up the logic.
Twins: There’s got to be at least some sense of relief within the Twins’ decision-making group that they don’t line up to face a left-handed starting pitcher, since their platoon-heavy batting order is noticeably worse -- on paper and in practice -- against southpaws.
They’re at their best against righties, when Edouard Julien can set the table from the leadoff spot and both Alex Kirilloff and Matt Wallner can man starting roles. As the Twins deemed both Carlos Correa (plantar fasciitis in left foot) and Royce Lewis (left hamstring strain) healthy enough to come off the IL, here’s how Minnesota will line up for Game 1:
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Blue Jays: This should be an advantage for the Blue Jays through their postseason run. They have the top-end talent of Jordan Romano and Jordan Hicks, who can be used interchangeably as the closer and setup man, with Erik Swanson as an excellent option right in front of them.
It’s Toronto’s depth that is most impressive, though. Tim Mayza has been one of the best lefties in baseball this season, Chad Green has recaptured his old form at the perfect time and Yimi García can be a strong option in the middle innings. The Blue Jays’ starters are strong, but there will be no hesitation to go to the bullpen early as a matter of strategy, not simply a reaction.
Twins: The Twins had the rare luxury of essentially remaking half of their bullpen for the better in the final month of the season, with Louie Varland, Chris Paddack, Kenta Maeda and Brock Stewart all arriving as fortifications to give Minnesota arguably its deepest staff, stuff-wise, from front to back in recent memory.
Jhoan Duran will get the ninth, with Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar and Stewart as his primary setup men. The middle innings and lower-leverage situations could be covered by Emilio Pagán and rookie left-hander Kody Funderburk. Any situation that involves bulk innings will likely go to Paddack and Maeda. Varland has looked particularly impressive since his transition to relief and could factor into any and all of the above situations.
Any injuries of note?
Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have been remarkably healthy this season. Bichette and Guerrero each dealt with injuries through August and September, but Toronto has a healthy roster and pitching staff coming into this series. The only injury situation to watch for the Blue Jays is Danny Jansen, who is in the early stages of working his way back from a broken finger at the beginning of September, but Jansen will only be a factor if the Blue Jays make a deep run.
Twins: Because the Twins had their division title and seed all but locked in well in advance of the postseason, they were able to treat the final week of the regular season essentially as Spring Training and get all of their pitchers lined up and fully rested.
Their primary concern is with Lewis. He could be limited to DH duties only and almost certainly will not be running at full bore due to the hamstring strain he sustained less than two weeks ago on Sept. 19. The Twins need his bat and his energy, though. Correa (plantar fasciitis) and Polanco (right ankle soreness) should be good to go.
Who’s hot, who’s not?
Blue Jays: Belt’s recent return from the IL (back) has had such a positive impact on this lineup, and he homered in back-to-back games on the recent homestand. Varsho launched a pair, too, and while this season has been a disappointment offensively, he’s an elite defender who can create chaos on the bases.
Beyond Guerrero and Bichette, though, Biggio has been one of the most valuable players on this roster down the stretch. He’s shaken off a slow start to the year and looks the best he has in his big league career at the dish alongside some rock-solid defensive play at multiple positions.
Twins: Lewis has been on fire essentially all season, but he went nuts in September with six homers, 23 RBIs and a .313/.410/.612 line in 18 games before his hamstring injury -- which made it all the more imperative for the Twins to get him back. Wallner and Willi Castro have also had monster months at the plate to close out the year.
Just about the entire team has been hot in the season’s final month; only Taylor (64 wRC+ in September after his return from injury) has been markedly below average as a hitter. On the pitching side, Sonny Gray has been outstanding with a 2.03 ERA since the start of August, while Joe Ryan (5.28 ERA in September) has been a bit of a concern.