New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins
The Yankees are extremely dangerous in spots, beginning with Alfonso Soriano, who hit his 38th homer on Sunday. A day earlier, he joined Willie Mays and Barry Bonds as the only players to register consecutive seasons with 35 homers and 35 stolen bases. Jorge Posada's 30 homers tied Yogi Berra for the club record for catchers, and Jason Giambi once again ranked among the major league leaders with 41. Hideki Matsui could be the American League Rookie of the Year with 106 RBIs. But No. 2 hitter Nick Johnson is in an 8-for-53 slump. The Twins finished third in the AL in batting, two spots ahead of New York. Left fielder Shannon Stewart hit .322 with 38 RBIs and 43 runs in 64 games after being acquired from Toronto, and his presence allowed Jacque Jones to move down the order. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski led the Twins with a .312 average. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz's sore wrist contributed to a 4-for-28 slump over the past two weeks. He led the AL with a .358 average in the daytime. Torii Hunter recovered from a horrible start to post his first 100-RBI season, and he's the only Twin with 20-plus homers.
The Yankees have three pitchers with 17 or more wins. Their starters lead the majors with 81 victories. Mike Mussina is 20-2 with a 2.77 ERA in his career against the Twins, and manager Joe Torre adjusted the rotation so the right-hander would start Game 1. Andy Pettitte won 17 of his last 20 decisions. Roger Clemens went 10-2 on the road, which explains his Game 3 start. Left-hander David Wells is expected to pitch Game 4 for the Yankees, but that isn't definite. Johan Santana joined the Twins' rotation and won his last eight decisions. He was 11-2 as a starter, including 8-1 after the break. More encouraging for the Twins, he was 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA on the road. Brad Radke was 9-1 after the break. Maryland alum Eric Milton could start Game 4 instead of Kenny Rogers.
Jose Contreras will move to the Yankees' bullpen and join Catonsville's Jeff Nelson in a right-handed setup role. The Twins never have seen Contreras. Left-handers Gabe White and Chris Hammond are good, but they won't make anyone forget Mike Stanton. Nelson and Antonio Osuna have kept Torre on edge. Mariano Rivera had 40 saves and ranks as one of baseball's all-time best playoff closers. Minnesota's bullpen will be loaded with left-handers - a good strategy when facing New York. Rogers and Milton could join J.C. Romero and closer Eddie Guardado, who was 19-for-20 in second-half save opportunities. LaTroy Hawkins and Juan Rincon, hard-throwing right-handers, complete the unit.
Karim Garcia could end up there, with Juan Rivera playing right field after a scorching finish that included home runs in four straight starts. The Yankees won't use their bench much, but Ruben Sierra still is dangerous at 38. He was 7-for-28 as a pinch hitter. For the Twins, outfielder Mike Ryan batted .381 since his Aug. 12 promotion. Denny Hocking and Michael Cuddyer each were 4-for-8 as pinch hitters. Outfielder Dustan Mohr also is available.
The Yankees have won 13 straight games against the Twins and are the heavy favorites, even though Minnesota had the best record in the majors during the second half at 46-23. The Yankees are appearing in their ninth consecutive postseason, equaling the total for the Twins in their history. The Yankees were 51-29 on the road, compared to Minnesota's 42-39. The Twins' best chance for an upset is found in New York's inconsistent bullpen. Also, Giambi batted .192 against left-handers, and the Twins are loaded with them. Minnesota has won 13 of 15 playoff games at the Metrodome. But look for the Yankees, who outscored the Twins 49-13 in seven wins this year, to advance behind their superior rotation and powerful lineup.
Boston Red Sox vs. Oakland Athletics
Both teams have premier shortstops in Oakland's Miguel Tejada, who overcame a rough first half, and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra. The Athletics ranked among the worst-hitting teams in the American League, while the Red Sox were first in batting and second in home runs with 238. Boston's outfield is superior offensively with Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon, whose injured left calf muscle makes him questionable for Game 1. The Red Sox have four players with 90 or more RBIs for the first time since 1986. General manager Theo Epstein looks brilliant beyond his years for acquiring Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, Todd Walker and AL batting champion Bill Mueller. Ortiz has emerged as a Most Valuable Player candidate. Oakland's Eric Chavez provides exceptional defense and power at third base. Jermaine Dye, injured most of the season, has returned to right field, and left fielder Jose Guillen joined the team in a trade with Cincinnati.