So the Tigers pulled a huge tank job, first losing four in a row and then losing a 6-0 lead to cough up the AL Central division title to the Twins. But that's in the past. The A's better have their Wheaties for the early morning matchups. 10 a.m. PST start times in Minnesota on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
I'll get right down to it, this is not a matchup that favors our lovable muppets. Any time you have to face the best pitcher in baseball twice in five games, you're already fighting the odds.
You throw in the fact that Morneau has three home runs, two doubles and a 1.014 OPS against our A's and it's an uphill climb.
This is a different A's team that the one that went to the playoffs in 2000-2003. Beane built this team from the ninth inning forward, so it's a team with a very strong bullpen. He also has built a team around defense. The A's learned the hard way that one mistake can change a five-game series...ask Billy Koch or Miguel Tejada about their mistakes the last time the A's met the Twins in the playoffs. Or Eric Byrnes and Miguel Tejada against Boston. Or Jeremy Giambi and Barry Zito against the Yankees. This team no longer has Jeremy Giambi roaming left field and T-Long in center.
If this team loses, it will likely be because one of the biggest problems for the A's down the stretch has been the starting pitching. And the A's know it.
All that being said, let's compare the teams major components and say who has the advantage:
Offense: The A's offense isn't as putrid as it looks overall. The team actually had the fifth best batting average in the AL after the All Star break and the second-best OBP. People want to say that the A's weakness is their offense and while they've been horrid at hitting with RISP and killed many a rally with an untimely double play, the offense was largely the reason the A's were able to hold off the Angels in September. The A's offense centers around the large frame of Frank Thomas. If the Twins decide to pitch around him the A's will need someone like Bradley, Chavez, Swisher or Payton to step up and make them pay for that decision.
As for the Twins, they had the best batting average since the All Star break. They also have one of the better OBPs at .352. They don't hit a ton of home runs, having only hit 57 since the All Star break, which is second-worst in the American League (the A's have 81 - good for sixth best). But the Twins have Morneau, who fears no Athletic pitcher.
Starting Pitching: Johan Santana is the best pitcher in baseball. If the Twins had Liriano healthy, I would argue that there is no question that the Twins have the advantage here. But they have Santana and then a bunch of other guys. That's not intended as disrespect, but Santana is a planet unto himself, the rest are just satellites orbiting him.
The A's had a big advantage in terms of starting pitching stats up until September, when the starting staff seemed to sputter along to the finish. Both the Twins starters and A's starters finished with an identical 4.50 ERA for the season. But if you dig deeper, you realize that the Twins only surrender 219 walks whereas A's starters gave up 340 free passes. The Twins also had more strikeouts over fewer innings pitched than our A's (largely because of Santana).
The X factor in all of this is Rich Harden. Harden can absolutely dominate, but he only got in three starts at the end of the season with two very good starts and one very shaky one. If Harden can dominate and Haren pitches like he did when he faced the Twins when Liriano started, the A's could very well have the advantage in this department. But with Santana, there is no hypothetical. His mere presence is compelling enough to give the edge to the Twins because all the other pitchers need to do is win one game.
Bullpen: The Twins bullpen has the best ERA in the American League at 2.91. And while the A's pen has been one of the team's biggest strengths this year, Huston Street hit a few bumps in the road this year. He blew 11 saves this year and looked shaky the last few times on the mound.
This is a tough one because the A's bullpen has so much depth from Joe Kennedy to Kiko Calero to Justin Duchscherer that it's hard to imagine anyone having a deeper pen, especially with Blanton joining that group. The A's also had a chance to rest their bullpen for the final week and use them sparingly thanks to the A's clinching early. That could be a factor in the A's pen outperforming the Twins pen that appeared to be taxed down the stretch. Joe Nathan is as strong as they come, closing wise. And the stats don't lie.
Defense: This is a tough one to quantify and I openly admit that I might be biased on this one from watching the A's on a daily basis, but the A's defense is the best in the American League if you compare position by position. Especially with Nick Swisher at first. The biggest problem the A's have is Marco Scutaro at short. I love Scoot, but his range isn't close to Bobby Crosby's and that fact could lead to an extra base hit or two, especially in the very fast Metrodome turf. Yes, we all know that Hunter is an amazing center fielder, Punto has been good at third and Morneau is an above-average first baseman. So this isn't a knock on the Twins, but more of a statement of the A's quality.
Manager: Ken Macha did a great job this year. He made the right moves most of the time. As a matter of fact, he's going on my SBN ballot for manager of the year. Course, the guy right behind him is Ron Gardenhire. I'm voting for Jim Leyland (how can you not?), then Macha and then Gardenhire. We shall see if Macha is able to press all the right buttons during this series. I know a lot of A's fans hate him (he's never been my favorite guy either), but you can't argue with the fact that he dealt with 15 trips to the DL and was able to still bring the A's to the promised land.
Gardenhire, on the other hand, did a masterful job of bringing his team back from the early season brink of oblivion. Gardenhire is routinely one of the best in the bigs.
Of course, the managing doesn't matter one bit if the players don't perform on the field.
So there you have it. The Twins look like they have nearly every advantage that really matters. The Twins are my favorite to actually win the World Series going into this postseason, so it doesn't reflect poorly on our muppets. It's just the fact that the Twins seem like a young team that's poised to do a lot of damage. They have all the key ingredients with a dominant starting pitcher, good hitting, one of the best bullpens around and a team that is well-managed.
At the same time, I also don't think that the difference between the A's and Twins is all that great. If the A's get a break here and there (then again, we are talking about the A's and the postseason, they just don't get breaks), then anything can happen.
Remember, the postseason is the equivalent to eight teams sitting at craps table and in that sense, maybe the odds will finally be with our boys. Then again, maybe they're just really bad craps players.