(Sports Network) – The New York Yankees begin their quest for a 28th World Series title the same way last year’s run to a championship began, with an American League Division Series matchup against the Minnesota Twins.
Unlike last year, though, the Yankees enter the postseason as a wild card and won’t have the benefit of home-field advantage, despite finishing a game better than AL Central champion Twins.
The Yankees, who have lost in the first round all three times they have entered the playoffs as a wild card, spent the majority of the year atop the American League East standings, but stumbled in September with a record of just 9-17 in their final 26 games. Still and all, as bad as they played in the final month, the Yanks were in the division mix up until game 162.
New York enters this postseason with a ton of questions surrounding its starting pitching, but still possesses perhaps the best lineup of any of the eight teams in the playoffs.
However, there are no concerns with the man taking the hill tonight, as left- hander CC Sabathia tries to follow up a terrific season that saw him post the most wins in his career by leading the American League with 21 victories to go along with a 3.18 ERA.
“He’s a No. 1, an ace,” Yankee manager Joe Girardi said. “I think it’s probably the easiest way to describe him. You get wins; you get outstanding performances. He stops losing streaks. He wins games. He gives you innings and gives the bullpen a night off. He’s tremendous.”
The big left-hander, who has beaten the Twins each of the last six times he has faced them, including last year’s Game 1 win, started off each of New York’s three playoff series last year and posted a 3-1 mark to go along with a 1.98 ERA in five starts last postseason, while holding opponents to three runs or less in each outing.
“You know, it feels good to be able to take the ball,” Sabathia said on Tuesday. “In the past, I probably would have put a lot more pressure on myself than I will [Wednesday] and try to do too much. But it definitely feels good to try to get us a win in the first game. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
In its first year at brand-new Target Field, Minnesota overcame the loss of potential AL MVP candidate Justin Morneau to win the AL Central for the second straight year and for the sixth time in the last nine seasons.
Morneau (.345, 18 HR, 56 RBI) was in the midst of a sensational season when a concussion ended his year on July 7 in Toronto. The Twins were 1 1/2 games back in the Central at the time of the injury, but caught fire over the next two months, winning 47 of the next 68 games to take a 12-game lead in the division.
However, like the Yankees, the Twins stumbled to the finish line, winning just two of their final 10 games.
“We got everybody in there and everybody out there,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’re relatively healthy going into the playoffs, which is what we’re looking for.”
Getting the call for Minnesota tonight will be Francisco Liriano, who enjoyed a tremendous bounce-back season for the Twins and was rewarded when he was named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year on Tuesday.
“It’s a great feeling when your teammates count on you,” Liriano said. “They want to see you out there pitching, doing your job. I’m not going to change anything. I’m going to go out and try to do the same thing I’ve been doing all year.”
Liriano emerged as the team’s ace, going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. Even though he heads into the playoffs with losses in each of his last three starts, Liriano was an impressive 8-0 from July 16-September 14 when the team grabbed control of the division.
“He has great stuff, and we’ve all seen it,” Gardenhire said Tuesday. “He has pitched very, very well for us this year. You never know how anybody is going to handle these situations and starts in the postseason. That’s why you put them out there and let them go. That’s the fun of it, to see Liriano take the ball in Game 1.”
These teams are certainly no stranger to one another come playoff time, as this will be the third Division Series matchup in the last eight years between the clubs. New York, though, has owned the Twins, sweeping last year’s ALDS and winning all three series while posting a 9-2 mark in the 11 games contested.
New York won four of the six regular season matchups between these teams and since 2008, not including their playoff meeting last season, the Yankees have played the Twins 23 times and have gone 17-6 in those encounters.