This is the time of the season when Twins Country is usually on pins and needles, but now Minnesota fans are on the panic button. Instead of psyching themselves up for another cliffhanger, or maybe even a 163rd game, they have something else to worry about. For a change, the Twins led the parade into the postseason instead of bringing up the rear. But since clinching the American League Central title on Sept. 21, they have gone 2-5, ending a five-game losing streak with Thursday night's win in Kansas City. So their fans are asking, "Is this any way to gear up for the playoffs?"
The obvious reaction would be, "Might as well try this approach since the other wasn't working." The Twins crashed their last two postseason parties on the last day, in 2006 and '09, and, armed with all that momentum, both times went three-and-out in the Division Series. But the most appropriate answer would be, "It's as good a way as any." There is no formula for the best approach to a World Series title takeoff. Well, other than having three hot starting pitchers ready to take the ball. They can give you a semblance of security. Anything else is just hot air through the Sabermetrics tunnel. Advantages are perennially debated, and advocates fall into two camps. Clinch early, and you can get all your ducks in a row: rest gassed regulars, heal aches and pains, set up the rotation. Clinch late, and you've got the jets of momentum. "Clinch too early, and you don't know what to do," said Joe Torre, whose 14-year postseason streak has ended with the current Los Angeles Dodgers. "Some clubs do want to clinch later. Look at Colorado the year (2007) they went into the World Series. If you sit around, you flatten out. With the Yankees, the guys were exhausted and getting a few days' rest helped."
Historically, both timetables have led to successful World Series runs, even as the three-tiered playoffs have obviously changed the postseason dynamics. The vagaries of playoff contention perhaps are best illustrated by the 1998 Yankees and the 2008 Angels, who had the earliest clinchings on record and played out the strings in similar fashion. The '98 Yankees clinched on Sept. 9, after which they went 12-7, before they ramped to the World Series championship. Those Angels, who secured the AL West on Sept. 10, finished 12-5. They were taken out in four games in the Division Series. "If you get into the end of your season, if you've already clinched, you do want to continue playing good ball," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Now, playing good baseball doesn't always lead to winning. I think you have that mindset and a couple teams come out and beat you, you're still prepared for what you need to do as you get to the next level. I think it's really how you're playing the game. I don't know if there's any rhyme or reason to it. We've been in situations both ways." You can lose as a latecomer as easily as an early-bird, as Torii Hunter also knows well. Hunter had joined the Angels just in time to share in that '08 heartbreak, two years after having experienced the aforementioned '06 Twins' quick ouster. "When you get on the field, it's what you've got going at that moment -- not what happened months ago," Hunter said. And for the momentum freaks ... The 2000 Yankees crossed the wire like parched men stranded in the middle of the Sahara, losing 15 of their last 18 games. Yep, they went on to win the World Series. Ditto the 2006 Cardinals, who went 3-9 at the end of the regular season. "In '06, we were playing as poorly as anybody in the game," recalled Scott Rolen, now back in the playoffs with Cincinnati but then the St. Louis third baseman. "And we won the whole thing." In 2006, the Dodgers finished 9-1. Last year, the Twins finished 17-4. Neither won anything, being Division Series sweep victims. The one glaring exception to the pointlessness of momentum are the 2007 Rockies, who caught absolute fire in the last two weeks of the regular season (13-1), blazed through a one-game playoff with San Diego and kept roaring through sweeps in the Division Series over Philadelphia and the Championship Series over Arizona; they finally dead-ended against Boston in the World Series. There are no absolutes because not only is this the second season, it is the strangest season. However you show up, it can change in the first game, in the first inning. Trends and momentum do not carry over from the regular season, but whatever is set in motion in that first postseason game is difficult to rein. "The playoffs are more of a crapshoot," said Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, who will be contributing to TBS' postseason coverage. "Once you get to the playoffs, you have an equal chance as anyone. It's about who's playing well, and who's pitching well." Not who's rested well. Managers of teams that have nailed down postseason berths will certainly give centerpiece veterans some downtime, but not extended vacations. Maintaining sharpness is an everyday challenge, because good baseball doesn't come with an on-off switch. Even though those 1998 Yankees clinched with 19 games to go, two-thirds of their regular lineup wound up playing 142-plus games. Torre's one concession was removing his regulars on a rotating basis early from games. The care and feeding of pitchers is a totally different issue, obviously. Optimizing their arms for the postseason is paramount, easily done with low-impact games at the end of the regular season. Consider how Bobby Cox (1995 Braves), Torre (1998 Yankees) and Joe Girardi (2009 Yankees) -- managers of the three teams that clinched 10 or more days before the start of the playoffs -- were able to hone the starters who would carry them to the pinnacle by limiting their innings the last time around the rotation: 1995 Braves: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz: Combined workload of 20 innings. 1998 Yankees: David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez: 20 innings. 2009 Yankees: CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett: 12 innings. Injuries are an entirely different matter, of course, and the luxury of lead time to the start of the playoffs is a blessing. The Twins can play out their string without Jim Thome, who has sought treatment for a sore lower back, and Joe Mauer, who has been out with a jammed right knee since two days prior to the clinching. Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton (cracked ribs) and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins (strained groin muscle) can afford to be more patient about their comebacks than they might be if their teams needed their help to secure playoff spots.
Ease or Wheeze?
|2007||Red Sox||Sept. 28||5||7-7|
|2005||White Sox||Sept. 30||4||9-5|
|2004||Red Sox||Sept. 28||7||9-5|