AL wild-card preview: Twins and Yankees hope to continue miracle years

The first game of the 2017 Major League Baseball postseason features two teams that weren’t supposed to be here. Coming into the year, many felt the New York Yankees were a year away from contention. And the Minnesota Twins … let’s not even talk about what people were saying about them.

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Both clubs smashed expectations. Behind MVP candidate Aaron Judge and the seemingly unstoppable Gary Sanchez, the Yankees offense performed better than anyone thought. Their questionable pitching staff received a huge boost when Luis Severino blossomed into an ace. The bullpen again looks fearsome, as five players posted sub-3.00 ERAs. Oh, and they also have Aroldis Chapman.

The Twins’ improvements came via their youngsters as well. The club’s patience with Byron Buxton finally paid off. He found his stride at the plate and paired that with exceptional defense to become the dangerous weapon pundits expected. In the rotation, Jose Berrios put last year’s struggles behind him to give the Twins another decent starter to pair with Ervin Santana. Even Joe Mauer turned back the clock to put up a vintage .305/.384/.417 slash line. In 2016, the Twins lost 103 (!) games. Now, they are in the postseason.

Unfortunately, all those hard-fought regular season wins come down to just one game Tuesday night. One team sees its miracle season come to an end, while the other gets rewarded with a matchup against the juggernaut Cleveland Indians. That seems cruel, especially after everything both teams have accomplished this season, but that’s baseball.

Who will get the honor of moving forward? Let’s take a look at how both teams will shape up during their wild-card matchup.

PARTICULARS
The American League wild-card game will take place Tuesday, Oct. 3 at 8:09 p.m. ET. It will be broadcast on ESPN. The Yankees have home-field advantage, so the game will be played at Yankee Stadium.

Ervin Santana and Luis Severino square off in the AL wild-card game. (Photos via AP)

PITCHERS
Steady Ervin Santana (16-8, 3.28 ERA) takes the mound for the Twins. The Yankees will turn to breakout star Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98 ERA).

Santana is probably more underrated than you think. Aside from a weird 2012, he’s been a pretty effective pitcher since 2010. Over the past two seasons, he’s posted a 3.32 ERA with eerily similar strikeout and walk rates over 392 2/3 innings. Santana is still capable of occasional dominance, as he completed five games this season, but he’s more than likely to give the Twins a quality start. While Santana can normally be counted on for innings — he went at least six in 24 of his 33 starts in the regular season — the Yankees have eaten him up over his career. Santana has a 5.66 ERA against the Yankees over 20 starts. Six of those starts have come at Yankee Stadium, where he has an unsightly 6.43 ERA.

Severino impressively put it all together in 2017. The 23-year-old exploded onto the scene, jumping his strikeout rate to 29.4 percent — which ranked fifth among all starters this season. He cut his walk rate and nearly reached 200 innings for the first time in his career. While fatigue might have been an issue, Severino looked great down the stretch, posting a 2.28 ERA in the second half. After a disaster start Aug. 12, he put up a 1.99 ERA over his final eight appearances. Severino’s breakout makes it tough to look at his previous starts and take anything away from them. He posted a 3.71 ERA at home in 2017, which is fine, though he was better on the road. He’s faced the Twins just once in his career, giving up three runs over three innings on Sept. 20.

LINEUPS
Here are the lineups the Yankees and Twins will send out for the wild-card game:



PREVIOUSLY
The Yankees and Twins have met six times this season. The Yankees won four out of those six games. New York has also been unstoppable at home this year, posting an absurd .638 winning percentage at Yankee Stadium. The Twins did play better on the road in 2017, posting a .543 winning percentage away from Target Field.

Previous postseason matchups will have no bearing on this game, but it’s worth noting the Twins have been eliminated by the Yankees four of the last six times they’ve made the playoffs. It makes for a nice revenge angle if the Twins can finally get the job done.

The Twins can win if Ervin Santana shuts down the Yankees offense. (AP Photo)

THE TWINS WILL WIN IF … 
Ervin Santana makes Aaron Judge revert to his August numbers and has Gary Sanchez swinging and waving at his slider. It seems obvious to put a one-game playoff on the starting pitcher, but Minnesota really needs Santana to perform well. The club’s bullpen wasn’t all that great, so an early exit would hurt. Jose Berrios is expected to be available in relief, and the Twins would greatly prefer he enter with them holding onto a lead as opposed to trying to clean up Santana’s mess. Byron Buxton can be a pain for any pitcher, though Severino limited runners to just four stolen bases all year. We’re going to guess few of them had Buxton’s speed/ability.

The Yankees will celebrate if their young stars can overcome the moment. (AP Photo)

THE YANKEES WILL WIN IF … 
The moment isn’t too big for their youngsters. The Yankees made it this far based on Severino, Sanchez and Judge. While Severino and Sanchez appeared on the 2015 team that made the playoffs, neither played in the wild-card game. All three players will get their first taste of postseason baseball Tuesday night. If they can keep their composure and treat it like a normal game, the Yankees will be just fine. If they have first-time jitters and it impacts their performance, the Twins could steal a win.

FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS


  • 16: Amount of passed balls allowed by Gary Sanchez this season. That figure led the league. Sanchez has a strong arm, and finished in the top-10 at catcher in caught-stealing percentage this year. Luis Severino only allowed four stolen bases all season. Those numbers won’t matter if a ball gets by Sanchez. Twins base-runners should be on alert at all times.
  • 1: Maybe Sanchez and Severino’s strong stolen base numbers won’t matter at all, because Byron Buxton really knows how to pick his spots. The 23-year-old stole 29 bases and was caught just once all season. Even if he doesn’t steal, Buxton can change the game by taking an extra base on a single. He’s a huge threat on the bases.
  • 243: Number of home runs hit at Yankee Stadium in 2017. That ranked third among all parks. Not surprisingly, the Yankees led the majors with 241 home runs. They are well-suited for their park, which probably explains their strong record at home. The Twins ranked 16th in baseball with 206 home runs. If it turns into a slugfest, the Yankees have the advantage.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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