The best lineup in the Majors is on a collision course with the most dominant pitching staff in the game this weekend. Just like everyone expected, that means the Twins and the Rays are set for a four-game clash at Tropicana Field.
In most other years, Yankees-Red Sox would be the marquee matchup of the weekend. This is not one of those years.
Welcome to a new era of baseball, where seemingly every Rays pitcher is throwing in the upper 90s with movement, and any day without six homers by the Twins’ stable of sluggers feels like somewhat of a letdown.
To introduce you to the storylines behind this clash of surprising titans, MLB.com asked its Rays beat writer, Juan Toribio, and its Twins beat writer, Do-Hyoung Park, to discuss what has made each team’s season so special, what to look out for this weekend, and how each of these teams might be stopped.
Juan Toribio: Besides stealing Rocco Baldelli from Tampa Bay, how exactly have the Twins jumped out to such a strong start this season?
Do-Hyoung Park: The Twins were cautiously optimistic about their chances entering the season because much of it hinged on the ability of their talented, yet inconsistent young core. Thus far, they have excelled.
Eddie Rosario is tied for the American League home run lead, Jorge Polanco is a bona fide MVP candidate, Max Kepler is the reigning AL Player of the Week, Byron Buxton is putting together a healthy, complete, highlight-reel-laden season and José Berríos is at the head of a quietly deep, dominant starting rotation.
And how about all of this value that the Twins have extracted from their pitching staff? Jake Odorizzi is the AL’s ERA leader. Martin Perez is suddenly a stingy strikeout pitcher throwing 97 from the left side. Did you know the Twins have the third-best starter ERA in baseball at 3.45? (Fans around the Twin Cities are jokingly clamoring for new pitching coach Wes Johnson to receive a Bryce Harper-sized contract.)
As for Tampa Bay, we obviously knew from last season’s success that this was a young, talented force to be reckoned with despite the relative lack of nationally recognizable names. How, then, have the Rays been able to build off that success in what’s shaping up to be another strong campaign?
JT: Coming into the season, most people that followed the team last year knew that the Rays were going to have a dominant pitching staff, led by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, and that has been the case so far this season. Through 52 games, the Rays have yielded 3 runs or fewer 35 times, 2 runs or fewer 26 times and 1 run or fewer 18 times, all of which are the best in the Majors.
Snell, Charlie Morton, Yonny Chirinos and Tyler Glasnow, who is currently on the 60-day injured list with a mild forearm strain, have led the way for the Rays, as the four of them have been responsible for most of Tampa Bay’s starts this season. Despite missing some time with a fractured right toe, Snell has lowered his ERA to 3.06 with five consecutive starts of two runs allowed or fewer. Morton has been as advertised, posting a 5-0 record and a 2.54 ERA in 11 starts, while Glasnow led the AL with a 1.86 ERA before his injury.
But aside from stellar pitching, a lot of the credit goes to general manager and senior vice president of baseball operations Erik Neander for the moves the club has made over the last 10 months. Over that span, the Rays have traded for Glasnow, Mike Zunino, Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, Jalen Beeks, Michael Perez, Emilio Pagán and Yandy Díaz, who have all played a pivotal part in the hot start to the season. Combine those moves with the free agent signings of Morton and Avisaíl García, who is fifth on the team with a 1.7 bWAR, and the Rays front office has nailed most of its moves over the past year.
With that being said, we know how dangerous Minnesota has been with the home run ball this season. But what would be an area that the Rays could exploit over the next four games?
DHP: The Twins’ lineup is too deep to be kept in check for too long, and the starting rotation has been tough to crack all season long -- they only have two starts of less than five innings since the rotation expanded to five in mid-April. If there’s a weakness to this team, it’s that the bullpen is largely inexperienced and hasn’t had big strikeout numbers throughout the season.
Is there anything about this Rays roster that the Twins could take advantage of?
JT: The Rays have done a lot of things well this season, but one area where they do struggle and have to do a better job with -- especially against good teams -- is hitting with runners in scoring position. Tampa Bay entered Wednesday batting .238 with RISP, which was 25th in the Majors. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that the Rays were hitting .139 (5-for-36) with the bases loaded, third lowest in the big leagues.
With the way the Twins have been swinging the bat this season, it’s likely that they’ll put some sort of pressure on the Rays staff, so the Tampa Bay offense will have to do a much better job of taking advantage of their opportunities, especially facing off against the top four pitchers in the Minnesota rotation.
We know about how good Rosario has been this season, and Rays fans are very familiar with C.J. Cron, but who would you say is a player to watch in this series?
DHP: Watch out for Kepler, who was named the AL Player of the Week after he hit .571/.600/1.190 with 10 runs, four doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs. He’s sometimes overshadowed on the national stage because of the production and name value of guys like Rosario, Jonathan Schoop, Miguel Sanó and Nelson Cruz, but he has quietly shown a marked improvement against left-handed pitching in the last two years, has responded well to his move up to the leadoff spot this season, and has already posted 1.9 bWAR in 2019.
Who on the Tampa Bay roster could we look at to make a big difference against Minnesota?
JT: With the Twins starting three right-handers, Meadows is definitely the player to watch for the Rays. Meadows has hit three home runs over the past week and holds the team lead with 12 roundtrippers this season. Everyone that follows the Rays knows how good Meadows has been this season, but this will give him a chance to showcase his talents to a national audience.
DHP: The bottom line is that this is a Twins team that’s having a tremendous amount of fun right now. How could they not, with Willians Astudillo hanging around the clubhouse and the team slugging so many homers that it has anointed itself the #BombaSquad? And this should be a particularly fun series for Baldelli, too, who makes his return to Tampa Bay after spending most of his playing career and all of his coaching career there. Let’s just say … he has low expectations of his old boss, Kevin Cash.
“Well, I don’t know about [a tribute video], but what I do know is that Kevin is probably planning something that he thinks is funny,” Baldelli said. “That, I’ll bank on that. I’ll bank on that happening. I’m fully prepared that when we walk out there for batting practice, that there will be something that he finds hilarious on the big screen. I’m like, whatever. I’m so tired of all of his games that it doesn’t even matter to me.”
JT: Cash had some positive things to say about Baldelli on the eve of their first regular-season meeting as opposing managers.
“We talked a lot in the offseason, and the little ideas, the things he wanted to do, it makes a lot of sense,” Cash said. “He wants the guys to go out and play and be comfortable, be relaxed and have fun. They certainly look like they’re having fun from afar when you’re winning games at the clip they are, it’s tough not to smile.”
As for a prank, Cash said he doesn’t have anything planned for Baldelli.
“Nope. Nothing. Nothing,” Cash said.
We’ll see about that.