Twins clinch playoff berth; Ace Liriano to start Game 1

By Mark Thomson

It’s a pretty good time to be a Twins fan. It’s one thing to be playing at arguably the best stadium in baseball, Target Field, but a whole other to be the first team in the league to clinch a place in the postseason. Reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer is locked in a long term deal and the team is neck and neck with the hated New York Yankees for the best record in baseball. Indeed, they’ve come a long way from the prospects of contraction earlier this decade. Compared to last year’s thrilling race to the postseason with the Detroit Tigers (which saw the teams compete in a one-game play-in to decide who would represent the AL Central in the playoffs), it is a bit of a relief to have an 11 game lead at this point in the season. Thus, it’s not too premature to look forward.

All three of the other probable American League playoff teams have one thing in common: an ace. For the Yankees, that’s CC Sabathia. For the Rays, that’s David Price. And for the Rangers, that’s Cliff Lee. Ever since the Twins traded Johan Santana in the 2007-2008 offseason, the Twins have been searching for someone to anchor their rotation. Last year, they had an abundance of number two pitchers. This type of rotation was conducive to regular season success but ultimately proved to not be enough for an extended postseason run.

However, this year the Twins have found their ace: Francisco Liriano. Some doubted his ability to make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery after his rookie year. It’s safe to say that with his performance this year, Liriano has proved them wrong. He’s been outstanding at times this season en route to a 14-8 record 3.44 ERA, and over 1 strikeout an inning.

In addition to Liriano, the Twins’ bullpen appears to be as strong as ever. Between Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Matt Capps, the Twins are the AL’s best in bullpen ERA. The loss of longtime closer Joe Nathan at the start of the season, although certainly a setback, hasn’t proven to be nearly as significant as initially feared.

In short, the Twins definitely have the pitching that can lead to sustained postseason success. But is their hitting good enough? In recent memory, the knock on the Twins has been that they lacked the requisite power necessary to be a serious World Series contender. In their three game sweep at the hands of the Yankees last year, they scored a combined six runs. They hit the fewest number of home runs and the second fewest hits of the four AL playoff teams last year.

This year, bats seem to be pointing up. They have the highest batting average in Major League Baseball and have scored 740 runs. Joe Mauer is hitting over .330. DH Jim Thome has 24 home runs. Delmon Young has over 100 RBIs. Right now, the Twins couldn’t be hitting the ball harder if it were sitting on a tee.

There is room for improvement. Perhaps the biggest wildcard is Justin Morneau. Before going down with a concussion on July 7th, Morneau was having an MVP-caliber season. He had 18 home runs and led the league with a .437 on base percentage at the time before the All Star Break. If the Twins can get him back in time for the playoffs, he adds a huge threat to the middle of the lineup.

Regardless of whether or not the Twins get Morneau back, things look promising. They have the pitching. They have the hitting. Now they just need to put it all together and bring Minnesota the World Series title it so rightly deserves.