The Game 1 starters in the American League playoffs will likely be as follows:
CC Sabathia, Yankees.
Cliff Lee, Rangers.
David Price, Rays.
Francisco Liriano, Twins.
Let’s consider the recent postseason exploits of each:
• Sabathia went 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA as the Yankees won the World Series last year.
• Lee beat the Yankees twice in last year’s World Series and had a 1.56 ERA over the three rounds.
• Price got the clinching outs of the 2008 AL Championship Series — as a rookie.
• Liriano has made one career postseason appearance. It was in relief. And it began with a two-run home run by Hideki Matsui.
At this point, there should be no further questions about why being a Twins fan involves equal measures of pride, hope and insecurity.
There is understandable interest in whether slugger Justin Morneau will return for the postseason. And sure, Joe Mauer’s left knee is a concern. But the Twins will succeed or fail this October based on the left arm of a pitcher who has never started a playoff game.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Liriano entered Friday’s start with a 2.84 ERA since the All-Star break. His 14 victories are a career high — and one major reason the Twins were the first team to clinch a postseason berth.
In the words of Minnesota general manager Bill Smith, Liriano is “back where he was before the (elbow) injury” that cost him the 2007 season.
“Everybody is very, very pleased about that — for him,” Smith said. “He has cleared every hurdle along the way. He’s been very good for us all year long — very, very good. He’s healthy. He’s strong. He’s throwing all his pitches. We have tremendous confidence in Francisco Liriano.”
So, he will get the ball two Wednesdays from now, followed by Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. A key consideration, according to pitching coach Rick Anderson, is that the Twins wanted to split up the southpaws Liriano and Duensing with the right-handed Pavano.
But Liriano also carries a reputation for unpredictable outputs in big moments.
Despite his recent success, Liriano has completed seven innings in only about half of his starts during the second half. Pavano is probably the more proven commodity.
Meanwhile, a rematch with the Twins’ chief postseason tormentor is looking more and more likely.
The Tampa Bay Rays, benefiting from a soft schedule and head-to-head tiebreaker, should win the AL East over the New York Yankees.
So, the Twins and Yankees will meet in the first round for the fourth time since 2003. Even casual October followers know which team has had the better of those meetings. Minnesota hasn’t even lived to see a Game 5.
Whether he frets about it or not, Liriano will oppose that lopsided history — in addition to Robinson Cano, A-Rod and friends — in any Game 1 encounter with the pinstripes.
He will, of course, have the backing of a raucous Target Field crowd in the Twins’ first outdoor home game in the postseason since 1970. But if he flops, Liriano will reinforce every anxiety felt by the home crowd when it comes to playing important games against the Yankees.
In fairness, the ’10 Twins are a better team — with a better bullpen — than the ’09 Twins, who were swept out of the first round by New York. Those Twins were taxed after their dramatic Game 163 victory over Detroit and made several (uncharacteristic) series-turning miscues.
“Whatever history there is, Jim Thome doesn’t have any of that history,” Smith said, when asked about a possible encounter with the Yankees. “Orlando Hudson doesn’t have any of that history. J.J. Hardy doesn’t have any of that history. Carl Pavano was with us last year. We’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t been any part of that history.”
Well put. Still, Liriano will be the one throwing the first ball of the first game of what the Twins hope will be their first World Series run in 19 years.
I had hoped to get a gauge of how Liriano would respond to such pressure on Friday, when he faced a postseason-caliber opponent in Detroit ace Justin Verlander. No such luck. Liriano surrendered a two-run homer to Miguel Cabrera in the fourth inning. He left shortly thereafter because of illness.
At least we could see how much the Game 1 assignment — made public earlier this week — was weighing on his mind.
“Well, they haven’t told me anything,” Liriano said. “So, I don’t know. I just can’t wait until the postseason begins. That’s why we’re here. … They haven’t told me anything, so I don’t want to get too excited.”
Good. Manage expectations now. Exceed them later. Whatever it takes, the Twins need Liriano to deliver on Oct. 6. Brett Favre is no longer the most important quarterback of a Minnesota team.