Yankees Face Another A.L. Powerhouse in the Twins
MINNEAPOLIS — In the three American League divisions, two teams have held first place for nearly three months this season, and neither of them is the Yankees, who entered their Monday game with the best record in the league.
The Houston Astros have been in first place since late April, in the A.L. West. So have the Minnesota Twins, in the A.L. Central. But thanks to a torrid stretch that started in mid-June, the Yankees have regained first place in the A.L. East and built the largest division lead — nine games ahead of the second-place Tampa Bay Rays — in the league.
Two of those division leaders, the Yankees (64-35) and the Twins (61-38), opened a three-game series on Monday with an 8-6 Minnesota victory that could be an October preview. The Astros have already proved to be a tough opponent for the Yankees, who lost four of the seven games in their season series. Now come the Twins, whom the Yankees beat twice in three games in May.
“We have a big week ahead of us,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who was out of the lineup Monday, his second consecutive absence because of a sore left knee. “It’s still only July, but they’re playing good baseball.”
But the Twins have fluctuated. Since reaching a peak division lead of 11½ games in early June, they have sputtered and dropped to the smallest division lead in the A.L.: a three-game advantage over the surging Cleveland Indians.
Despite heading in different directions of late, the Twins and Yankees are similar in one respect: a high-powered offense. Entering Monday, the Yankees led baseball with 5.69 runs per game. Trailing them by mere fractions of a run were the Boston Red Sox and Twins. After the series in Minnesota, the Yankees will travel to Boston for the first time this season, playing a four-game series against the Red Sox, who are in third place in the A.L. East.
The Twins have outdone their pinstriped opponents in one area that has been the Yankees’ trademark: home runs. Through 99 games, the Twins have a major league-leading 187 homers and are on pace to smash 306 this season, which would shatter the major league record, 267, set by the Yankees last season.
In fact, the Twins could set a few home run records this season. They have had 10 players on pace to hit 20 homers, which would top the record held by, among others, the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers, who had seven. Twins outfielders Max Kepler (25 homers) and Eddie Rosario (21) pace the team.
“This is a team that can hurt you from both sides of the plate,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said before Monday’s game. “It’s a very balanced attack, right and left. They’ve got some athleticism out there. We know we’ve got to be on our game if we’re going to keep them in check.”
The Yankees had trouble doing so on Monday. They surrendered five home runs — four of them given up by starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia. Twins catcher Mitch Garver hit two.
The Yankees were also on the short end of some unusual plays. In the first inning, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion hit into the Yankees’ first triple play in two years. Two innings later, the Twins scored a run with the bases loaded when Gary Sanchez was called for catcher’s interference while Nelson Cruz was batting.
The biggest recent matchup between these two teams came during the 2017 playoffs. The Yankees won, 8-4, in the A.L. wild-card game thanks to home runs by Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Gardner, as well as stout relief pitching after Luis Severino’s rough start. The win gave the Yankees a 13-2 postseason record against Minnesota.
The Twins then endured a rough 2018 season, finishing 78-84. Led by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the front office hired a rookie manager, Rocco Baldelli, and retooled the roster, pouncing on short-term deals for Cruz, the utility man Marwin Gonzalez, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and Martin Perez, Monday’s starting pitcher, to supplement a young core.
Breakout seasons by younger players — Garver, Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco, who was suspended 80 games last season for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug — have helped carry the team.
“I decided to come here because of the chance to go to the postseason,” said Cruz, who signed a one year, $14 million deal. “And thankfully, we’re in a good situation and in the midst of the playoff fight.”
The Twins’ starting rotation, which ranked fourth in baseball with a 3.70 E.R.A. entering Monday, has been powered by two All-Stars, Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, who is scheduled to start against the Yankees on Wednesday. Despite strong pitching in July, the Yankees’ rotation ranked 12th with a 4.19 E.R.A., prompting the front office to seek an upgrade ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
Unlike the Yankees’ bullpen, which ranked second in baseball entering Monday with a 3.71 E.R.A., the Twins’ relief corps has struggled. It is among the biggest reasons for the team’s recent fade, and a weakness that could be exposed by the Yankees’ deep lineup.
Minnesota’s bullpen ranked 13th in baseball with a 4.36 E.R.A. entering Monday. Five of the Twins’ last six losses were determined by the bullpen, including a blown save by closer Taylor Rogers, who has otherwise been stellar with a 1.93 E.R.A. and 15 saves. The unit held off the Yankees on Monday.
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