MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the past several weeks, manager Rocco Baldelli and the Twins have steadfastly refused to publicly discuss any possible postseason speculation or plans before they clinched their spot in the playoffs.
On Wednesday night, they finally punched their ticket to October after a 5-1 win over the Tigers and the Indians' loss to the White Sox, which sealed Minnesota's first American League Central championship since 2010. For the first time since then, the Twins will play in the AL Division Series and host Game 3 and a Game 4 (if necessary) at Target Field.
And on Friday, the Twins learned that their journey through October will -- of course -- begin in the Bronx. The Astros secured the top seed in the AL with a victory in Anaheim, locking the Yankees into the league's No. 2 seed and setting Minnesota up to kick off the playoffs against New York for the fifth time in its last six postseason appearances.
When do the playoffs start?
The postseason begins on Tuesday with the National League Wild Card Game. More relevantly for the Twins, the ALDS gets underway at Yankee Stadium at 6:07 p.m, CT on Friday, with Game 2 scheduled for 4:07 p.m. on Saturday. The first home playoff game for the Twins will be on Monday, Oct. 7, when they're scheduled to host Game 3.
Are Luis Arraez, Max Kepler, Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza going to be healthy in time?
Kepler and Gonzalez should be back in time, Baldelli confirmed on Friday, but Adrianza might be further behind. He has been taking infield practice with his teammates, but he still hasn't hit at full capacity, and because of the more difficult nature of oblique injuries, his status could be up in the air until rosters need to be set on the morning of Game 1.
As for Arraez, who sustained a Grade 1 right ankle sprain in Saturday's contest at Kauffman Stadium, only time will tell. Baldelli said Sunday that the Twins will pursue an aggressive treatment plan for their 22-year-old rookie, as the ankle appears stable enough for game play, but the issue will be in establishing a full, normal range of motion and managing the pain. The Twins are likely to delay this decision for as long as possible before they need to lock in their ALDS roster on Friday morning.
Oh no, the Yankees?
Indeed, the Twins are 2-13 in their last five postseason appearances against the Yankees and haven't won an ALDS game against New York since 2004. They lost the AL Wild Card Game in '17 and were previously swept by the Bronx Bombers in both the '10 and '09 ALDS. All told, Minnesota has dropped 10 straight postseason contests to the Yankees.
But do the Twins care?
Anyone in this Twins clubhouse will point out that nobody that is currently around -- players and staff alike -- were around for that era of ALDS futility against New York, though they certainly understand the fan frustration around Twins Territory. These Twins have shown the ability to beat any team in the AL this season, and they've taken that to heart throughout the year.
The Twins went 2-4 against the Yankees this season, losing two out of three at Yankee Stadium in early May before dropping a thrilling three-game series at Target Field that would have gone in Minnesota's favor had it not been for a brilliant game-saving catch by Aaron Hicks to seal a 14-12, extra-innings loss in the second game.
Is lack of home-field advantage even a negative for this team?
It's impossible to tell how many important pieces of a young Minnesota team will be affected by playing in hostile playoff road environments for the first time. With that said, the Twins finished a Major League-best 55-26 on the road this season, the most wins away from home in club history, and they could certainly take advantage of the short fences at Yankee Stadium with their prolific power output.
Can Minnesota's rotation survive the Yankees?
There's little question that a Twins-Yankees ALDS could be a no-holds-barred offensive slugfest, with the clubs both having blown through the 300-homer mark this season before the Twins edged the Yanks for the all-time record.
That much was evident in the three-game series at Target Field in July, which ended in scores of 8-6, 14-12 and 10-7. The Twins could use only use two "true" starting pitchers in José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi, though rookie Randy Dobnak has suffocated opponents in his last three starts and has absolutely pitched well enough to be considered for a lengthy start as well.
Berríos actually missed the Yankees in both series this season, and despite some inconsistency during the middle of the season, he has been at his best against some elite opponents. He tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings against Cleveland on Opening Day, held Houston to two runs in seven innings in May and, most recently, tossed seven shutout innings against Washington.
Odorizzi, on the other hand, met the Yankees twice this season. In his first outing, he struck out eight in six shutout innings as he pitched the Twins to their only win in the Bronx this season. But facing New York at Target Field on July 24, Odorizzi had his worst start of the season, allowing nine runs in four innings. He has otherwise been consistently strong against elite competition, with several solid outings against Cleveland, Houston, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Oakland, among others.
How have the Twins fared against Yankees starters this season?
Yankees manager Aaron Boone has already said that James Paxton could be New York's only "traditional" starter in the postseason. That might prove wise against the Twins, who crushed Yankees starters to the tune of 20 runs in three games at Target Field in July, though neither Masahiro Tanaka nor Luis Severino faced the Twins at any point this season.
The Twins did see Paxton earlier this year on May 3 at Yankee Stadium, but they didn't get an extended look at the southpaw, as he was pulled after only three innings with knee soreness that sidelined him for nearly four weeks. Paxton walked three and struck out only one batter in three innings in that outing, but it's tough to use that start to draw any conclusions.
The fact that Paxton is left-handed might end up playing in the Twins' favor, anyway. For one, right-handed hitters are slugging nearly 80 points better against Paxton this season (.432 against .364 for left-handed batters), and the Twins have crushed left-handed starters this season, with a Major League-best .884 OPS and .528 slugging percentage against such opponents.
Paxton is also particularly susceptible in the first inning, when he has posted an 8.68 ERA this season, with 11 of his 22 homers allowed in 2019 coming in the opening frame. Guess what? That's likely where leadoff hitter Mitch Garver (1.170 OPS vs. LHP) and Nelson Cruz (1.207 OPS vs. LHP) will be waiting.
Will the Twins' bullpen be up to the task?
Consider this: According to FanGraphs, Minnesota's bullpen accumulated a combined 7.3 fWAR this season, the third-best mark in baseball behind only the Rays and Yankees. It's gelling at the right time, too, as a Major League-leading 4.8 fWAR of that total has come in the second half.
With strong second-half performances from Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Taylor Rogers, Zack Littell and a host of rookie relievers that have impressed in their first taste of the Major Leagues, the Twins' bullpen has shown, even against the likes of Cleveland, that it likely won't be outmatched by too many other units. In its current state, it's a much different unit than the one that allowed 11 runs in three games when the Yanks last came to town.
During that series, young arms like Lewis Thorpe, Cody Stashak and Devin Smeltzer all got to face off against the Yankees. That big-game experience can only help them in a possible second matchup against the Bronx Bombers.
But can the Twins crack the Yankees' bullpen?
That's a good question, and this might well be the series-defining factor for the Bomba Squad.
During the July series against New York, the Twins did an overwhelming amount of their damage against the Yankees' starters, but the vaunted New York bullpen proved much tougher to crack, as it allowed only six runs in 16 innings. It's worth noting that the Twins finished sixth in the AL with a .777 OPS against relief pitchers this season.