Every team that shows up for Spring Training has essentially the same set of three goals:
- Win our division (or at least get that wild card spot to get to the playoffs);
- Advance to the World Series
- WIN the World Series.
At the risk of offending the baseball gods, after this week’s sweep of the Sox, it’s getting pretty safe to say the Twins have accomplished that first goal. They’ve overcome the adversity of losing key players for all or most of the season. They’ve tinkered with their starting rotation and bullpen roles. They’ve had players who were not envisioned having any role this season step up and contribute when called upon to do so. They’ve made a couple of key late-season roster additions.
They say the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and while the Twins have not held the lead throughout the entire race, they have built a lead at the end that is insurmountable as long as they don’t come down with whatever the baseball equivalent of rigor mortis is (Tiger mortis?) over the next two weeks.
So it’s time to cross number one on that set of goals off the list and ask, “What’s next?”
The last couple of times the Twins have accomplished goal number 1, they’ve had to sprint so hard at the end of the race that, even upon being successful, they could do little but collapse at the finish line and let their rested ALDS opponents walk over their backs and on to the ALCS. There’s no reason that should happen again in 2010.
Tackling the second goal, advancing to the World Series, is akin to lining up for a 400 meter race after finishing a marathon. Your chances of success depend a great deal on how much rest you’ve been able to get between races and how well you recognize that winning two series, a best-of-5 and a best-of-7, calls for a different strategy than coming out on top of a “best-of-162” season.
So here’s Jim Crikket’s “How the Twins Get to the World Series in 4 Easy Steps”.
Step 1: Conserve energy at the end of that marathon.
Yes, it would be wonderful to finish with the best record in the American League… but not if it means your key players enter the post-season tired and nursing nagging injuries. The Twins not only have a 9 game lead in the standings over Chicago, but a pretty nice 5 1/2 game lead over the Rangers. As long as that lead stays safe, the Twins are going to have home field advantage and host the Wild Card team in the ALDS.
It sounds like Scott Baker is healthy and that means the Twins have six starting pitchers available. Use them. Give everyone an extra day’s rest using a six man rotation the last couple of weeks.
Don’t overwork the bullpen. There is little reason for any of the short relievers that the Twins will be relying on in the post-season (Capps, Rauch, Fuentes, Guerrier, Crain, Mijares) to pitch two days in a row or more than one inning in any game. Keep them sharp. Use them intelligently. But make sure they are strong for the ALDS.
Get and keep everyone healthy. Is Jason Kubel’s wrist sore? Let him rest. Is Jim Thome’s back stiff? Sit him down. Hudson, Hardy and Valencia have all nursed some injuries the past few weeks. Make sure those are as healed as possible.
Oh, and for Gods sake, find SOMEONE who can give Michael Cuddyer a couple of days off at first base, will ya?
Step 2: Set your rotation.
This really isn’t rocket science, so don’t over-think things. The ALDS is set up as two games, day off, two games, day off, one game. ‘Stache and Frankie are going to pitch the first two games and Brian Duensing is going in game 3. If you’re down 1 game to 2 after that, Pavano’s going on 3 days rest in game 4. If you’re up 2-1, you go with whoever your best #4 starter has been during the final couple of weeks. Who knows, you may even sweep the other guys in 3 games and not have to worry about game 4.
There’s been some discussion about whether Pavano or Liriano should be your Game 1 starter. After Pavano’s less-than-impressive outing Thursday night, the debate could pick up steam. But please… there’s no question it’s Pavano. As much as the Twins have been in the playoffs this decade, it’s easy to forget that Liriano has never started a postseason game. He was quoted this week saying that he’s already nervous about making his first playoff start. In case you haven’t noticed, Frankie + nervous = not good. You do not want him starting Game 1, never mind a possible Game 4 on short rest (and on the road) to stay alive. Win Game 1 behind Pavano and maybe Liriano will relax a little bit before taking the mound for Game 2 (OK, probably not).
Step 3. Make sure everyone knows what their role is… and that it’s not necessarily the role they’ve played during the first 162 games.
Perhaps I should preface this with, “make sure GARDY knows what everyone’s role is and that HE knows those roles aren’t necessarily the same as they’ve been the first 162 games.”
This is where you tell Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Jason Repko and yes, Drew Butera, “Thank you… you have all done a terrific job when called upon this season and we would not be in the position we are in without you. You will all get a ring and a playoff check when this is over. But outside of a little pinch running, late game defensive assistance, or (God forbid) stepping up for an injured team mate, your primary role the rest of the way is ‘cheerleader’.”
On the one hand, when the most widely discussed topic among a playoff-bound team’s fan base revolves around its backup catcher, that team must be looking pretty good. On the other hand, there’s a reason that the role of Drew Butera in the playoffs is being widely discussed.
There has been widespread concern that Ron Gardenhire would continue using Butera as Pavano’s personal catcher in the playoffs. Thursday’s pairing of Pavano and Mauer hopefully put this question to bed. If Pavano does have to pitch 2 of those ALDS games, it would be insane to have Drew Butera in the lineup instead of Jim Thome for 40-50% of your playoff games.
The problem is, sometimes even the best Major League managers forget they are no longer running the marathon and they lose a little bit of their sanity. Even Tom Kelly did it with Junior Ortiz in the 1991 World Series, when Ortiz was Scott Erickson’s “personal catcher”. That just proves TK wasn’t always sane, either. But I’d like to think that even Kelly would have made a different choice if, instead of Ortiz taking Brian Harper’s spot in the batting order, it would have meant Kent Hrbek had to sit.
Step 4: Relax.
All season long, this team has been loose on the field and, from all reports, loose in the clubhouse. They seem to have really enjoyed the season and have never worried too much about the individual games. There has been a confidence that every day somebody is going to step up and provide the critical hit, the shutdown pitching performance or the defensive gem that leads to a win. Don’t let anything change that approach.
When you’ve accomplished the second goal, we’ll take a look at what it takes to tackle that 3rd and final one. But for now, you never know when your next trip to the playoffs will be, so relax, have fun and enjoy this one.
And that goes for the fans, too. – JC