For the second year in a row the Twins will face the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. Tonight at 8:37 PM, Francisco Liriano will take the mound opposite whatever imposing lineup the Yankees choose to throw at the Twins. As they have been for the last three months, the Twins will be without both their best hitter and their best reliever (Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan). And yet, despite that, the Twins undoubtedly are better off than they were before Game 1 of the ALDS in 2009.
That, of course, is due in large part to the circumstances surrounding their entrance into the playoffs. Rather than playing late into the night halfway across the country just 18 hours before the start of the game, the Twins have been resting their players and getting their starters healthy for this matchup for two weeks now. Instead of opening on the road in a city that has offered nothing but disappointment since 2002, they will play in front of a home crowd at their brand new ballpark. And, as mentioned before, it will be a dominant Francisco Liriano pitching as opposed to the inexperienced Brian Duensing.
Even without these advantages the Twins could already boast a much improved team than last year. Brendan Harris at designated hitter? Try Jim Thome, a man with an OPS over 1.000. Nick Punto and Nick Punto-lite (Matt Tolbert) both in the starting lineup? I'll take the established Orlando Hudson and electrifying rookie Danny Valencia instead. Orlando Cabrera, a man with the range of a slow-footed penguin, manning shortstop? Give me perennial gold glove candidate J.J. Hardy instead.
That being said, the team they are playing, the Yankees, is similarly talented. They boast an impressive array of hitters up and down the lineup, leaving no weak spots where the Twins can relax. They have an excellent--if not Cy Young-worthy--southpaw pitching opposite Liriano tonight, and a few high-quality arms bridging the gap to the ageless Mariano Rivera. The Twins have a better team than last year, but they are going to need it to handle the challenge. And they will, in 5 games, vanquish the team that has owned them for eight years running.