Four years ago, the A’s took on the Twins in the American League Divisional Series as heavy favorites. Oakland took an early 5-0 lead in Game One of that series, only to see ace Tim Hudson cough-up the lead. Although the A’s would win the next two games of the series, they would fall in Games Four and Five to lose the series.
There are a few players on both rosters who were involved in that 2002 series. Barry Zito was the winning pitcher in Game Three of that series. Eric Chavez hit .381 with a homer and five RBI while playing in all five games. Mark Ellis hit .368 in five games during that series, and hit a memorable three-run homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning against Twins closer Eddie Guardado that brought the A’s within one-run in that decisive game. A’s fourth outfielder Bobby Kielty was a bench player for the Twins during that series, but he failed to collect a hit in four at-bats.
For the Twins, Michael Cuddyer was a surprise contributor in that series, collecting five hits in 13 at-bats. Centerfielder Torii Hunter batted an even .300 and scored four runs. Starter Brad Radke was the ace of the staff, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA. The invincible Johan Santana was a young reliever back then, and the A’s touched him up for two runs in three innings during the series.
Despite those holdovers, there aren’t very many similarities between that series and this one. The A’s were the prohibitive favorites in that series and they boasted the most post-season experience, having appeared in the playoffs in the two previous seasons. The Twins hadn’t been in the playoffs since 1991 and were seemingly just happy to be there. The A’s were coming off of a 20-game regular season winning streak and boasted the most dynamic starting rotation in baseball, with the Big Three leading the way. The A’s also had the eventual Cy Young winner (Zito) and AL MVP (Miguel Tejada) on their squad.
This season, it is the Twins who are coming into the series with a lot of playoff experience, having been in the post-season in 2003 and 2004 (the A’s were in the playoffs in 2003, but they don’t have many players left from that roster). It is also the Twins who have the possible Cy Young (Santana) and AL MVP (Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer, take your pick) on their roster. The Twins also have homefield advantage, this time around.
So is all lost for the A’s in this series? Not necessarily. During the season series, the A’s and Twins met 10 times, with the Twins taking six of 10. Both teams were best at home, with the Twins going 5-1 and the A’s going 3-1 at their respective home parks. The A’s lost three early season games at the Metrodome in strange fashion. In all three games, they jumped out to early leads, only to see their stalwart pitching staff fail to hold the leads. Mid-season, the A’s took three of four at the Coliseum, with Oakland losing a game to Santana 2-1 and controlling the other three. In the final match-up of the season, the Twins took the first two games at the Metrodome and dropped the third game, 1-0, when Dan Haren stifled the Twins potent line-up and the A’s used a controversial stolen base to lead to the game’s only run of the game.
The A’s and Twins are very similar teams, in many ways. Both squads are built around pitching and defense, especially up the middle. The Twins rotation took a hit late in the season when uber-rookie Francisco Liriano went down with an elbow injury. However, with Santana at the helm, the Twins still finished second in the league ERA (just ahead of the A’s, who were fourth). Brad Radke, broken shoulder and all, will try to make at least one start this series and rookies Boof Bonser and Matt Garza could play big roles in the pitching staff, along with veteran Carlos Silva, who is having a down season.
Minnesota has a strong bullpen, anchored by closer Joe Nathan and bolstered by solid set-up men Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes. The Twins are very strong defensively, especially up the middle with Gold Gloves in center (Hunter) and second base (Luis Castillo). Mauer is also very solid behind the plate.
The A’s also have a strong pitching staff, which was weakened for much of the season by injuries, especially to team ace Rich Harden. Harden is expected to be back for the playoffs, but he won’t be the Game One and Five starter like he would have been if he had been healthy all season. Instead, that honor will go to Zito, who will likely be making his last appearances for the green and gold this post-season. Zito had a good, but inconsistent season in 2006, going 16-10. Zito has been traditionally strong in the playoffs and he won his only post-season start at the Metrodome.
Esteban Loaiza, Dan Haren and Harden should round out the rotation. All three have had moments of brilliance and periods of struggle this season. Loaiza was rocked in his one start against the Twins early this season, although he has been a different pitcher during the second half of the season. Haren has had the most exposure to the Twins this season, making three starts and going 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA. Harden’s only appearance against the Twins this season came in his first outing off of the disabled list in June. He ended up hurting his elbow in that start and missing the next two and a half months.
Oakland’s bullpen has been a strength all season, although it is limping a bit into the playoffs. Closer Huston Street has blown his last three save opportunities and has been inconsistent since coming off of the disabled list in early September. Set-up man Justin Duchscherer has been light’s-out, but he balky back tightened up this weekend and he hasn’t worked in three days. He is expected to be available in Game One. Joe Kennedy and Kiko Calero will be relied on for important innings and fifth starter Joe Blanton will move into the bullpen to pitch long relief.
On defense, the A’s have been at or near the top of all fielding categories for much of the season. Their outfield covers a lot of ground and second baseman Mark Ellis set a record for fielding percentage this season, while Chavez had one of his best defensive seasons of his career. The A’s infield will lose some range with Marco Scutaro at short instead of Bobby Crosby, although Scutaro is a consistent fielder, if not spectacular.
Where the A’s and Twins differ the most is on offense. Minnesota hit .287 this season, best in the AL , while the A’s hit a meager .259. However, those numbers are somewhat misleading, as the A’s were a much better offensive team in the second half of the season than they were in the first half. The A’s out-homered the Twins, 174-142, and the Twins swiped 43 more bases than did the A’s.
Both teams play extremely well in their home ballparks and both were second-half teams, with Minnesota finishing with the best second-half record and the A’s, the second-best second-half record.
1) Win Santana’s starts. The Twins rotation is a little suspect after Santana with Liriano on the shelf. If the Twins lose a Santana start (especially in Game One), it could effect the team’s confidence for the rest of the series.
2) The M&M boys must hit. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau made the Twins click all season and another “M”, Michael Cuddyer, has been tough on the A’s all season. If those three are hitting well, it will be tough for the A’s to keep Minnesota off the board.
3) Run Wild. Although Jason Kendall has improved his throwing this season, the A’s are still vulnerable to being run on by very quick teams. The Twins can create a lot of scoring opportunities if they take-off a lot this series.
1) Four is “Big”-ger than Three: This will be the A’s first post-season without the Big Three in their rotation. The A’s will need Zito to bring his post-season A-game and for Loaiza, Haren and Harden to pound the strikezone like former Big Three members Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson used to.
2) Make Twins pitch to Frank. The Twins aren’t likely to let Frank Thomas beat them, so other members of the A’s batting order are going to have to set-up. If Milton Bradley can get on in the three-hole and Eric Chavez can swing a hot bat in the five-hole, the Twins will be forced to give Frank something to hit.
3) Bullpen must be sharp. The A’s have relied on an outstanding bullpen all season, but their relievers have been showing signs of strain over the last few weeks. Playoff series often come down to who has the best bullpen, and the A’s lost the 2002 and 2003 Divisional Series when their strong bullpens faltered.