AL Wild Card Series Playoff Preview: Blue Jays vs. Twins

The Twins welcome the Blue Jays for the AL Wild Card Series, with both teams looking for their first postseason series win in some time.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JULY 23: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays bats during the fourth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on July 23, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

After finishing first in the AL Central with an 87-75 record, the Minnesota Twins will face the Toronto Blue Jays at home to start one of the two AL Wild Card series this week. The other series will take place in Florida, with the Tampa Bay Rays welcoming the Texas Rangers, who finished second in the Wild Card standings and one win and one spot ahead of the Blue Jays.

This is Minnesota’s second appearance in the postseason over the past three years, while Toronto is heading into playoff territory for the third time in as many seasons. Both teams have had similar limited success in October as of late.

The Twins have not won a playoff series since they won the World Series back in 1991 and haven’t won a postseason game since 2004, while the Jays are trying to shake off a losing skid that stretches back to the 2016 campaign when they advanced to the ALCS but fell to Cleveland in five games.

Both teams each have two World Series championships under their current moniker, although the Twins also technically won another title back in 1924 when they were the Washington Nationals, moving to the Twin Cities in 1961.

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Head-to-Head in the AL Wild Card

This season, the Twins and Blue Jays faced off six times, and each took three wins apiece, so it’s a little harder to say who has the upper hand. Toronto did finish with a better record (89-73), but the Twins took home their division, giving them home-field advantage in the series.

The Twins took two games at home when Toronto made the trek out west, while the Blue Jays won the series at the Rogers Centre. In other words, each team won its home series, perhaps giving the Twins an edge. However, since 1977, the Blue Jays inaugural season, the Blue Jays hold a 233-183 record against the Twins.

The two squads have never faced off in the playoffs before, so this is somewhat new territory for both teams.

Pitching Matchups

For game one, the Twins will be sending Pablo López to the mound while the Blue Jays will be countering with Kevin Gausman.

This season, López pitched to a 3.66 ERA with 234 strikeouts through 194 innings of work. Gausman had somewhat similar results to his Twins counterpart, authoring a 3.16 ERA through 185 innings while striking out an AL-best 237 batters.

These two pitchers finished first and second in the league in punchouts, so it is very possible that today’s game could be a pitching duel between both sides.

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López faced the Blue Jays back on May 27 and earned the win, going 5 2/3 innings while allowing four runs off of five hits and striking out six. He surrendered home runs to Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio that day, but the Twins bats were able to help secure the win with a three-run fifth inning.

Gausman has faced the Twins twice this season and pitched better on the road than at home, allowing just one run through 5 1/3 innings of work compared to the six runs he allowed at the Rogers Centre. Still, the Blue Jays won both games he pitched.

While the game two starter has not been announced yet on Minnesota’s side, Toronto will be sending former Twins starter José Berríos to the mound in the second contest. The Twins will likely send Sonny Gray opposite Berríos, as the right-hander has been excellent this season as well.

Should a game three be required, the Twins will likely turn to Joe Ryan but could opt to use Bailey Ober or Kenta Maeda instead if they so choose. The Jays will likely turn to Chris Bassitt if needed.

Bullpen-wise, the Blue Jays have the upper hand, although the Twins possess a dominant closer in Jhoan Durán. The Jays, for their part, picked up some firepower at the trade deadline in Jordan Hicks.

The game plan for Toronto should be to wear out the Twins’ starting pitchers early and get to the bullpen as quickly as possible, while Minnesota should look to keep passing the baton and capitalizing on the Jays pitching staff in any opportunity that they can.

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The Bats

Entering the Wild Card series, the Minnesota Twins have quite a few question marks on the go.

Carlos Correa has been battling a foot injury for a good part of the season, although he believes he’ll be back on the field today.

Moreover, the club is not 100% certain if they will have Byron Buxton for the series, as the outfielder hasn’t appeared in a big league game since August 1 due to a knee injury. With so much missed time and no guarantee of him being healthy, early signs are pointing to him not being ready to go for this matchup. Slugger Joey Gallo is also on the IL, and it doesn’t appear he will be suiting up in this series, either.

Another questionable player for this series is infielder Royce Lewis, who has been battling a hamstring injury as of late. It appears that Lewis will in fact be on the roster, although potentially in the DH spot instead of in the field. Both he and Buxton have been off for quite some time, so it will be interesting to see how each player does given the time away. Similarly, it will be interesting to see if Correa can find another gear despite his injury and subsequent down season.

Amongst the healthy batters in Minnesota’s lineup, Canadian Edouard Julien is swinging a hot bat as of late and will be taking part in his first AL Wild Card series, while outfielder Max Kepler leads the squad with 24 home runs this season.

Alex Kirilloff has been doing well at the plate since his return from the IL roughly three weeks ago and has supplemented the loss of Gallo. Over the past 30 days, the Twins have done well in the batter’s box collectively and own a .826 OPS with 42 home runs.

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Overall, the Twins have a sneaky good contact-first type team that finished seventh in MLB in OPS (.753) but with a few players that have sneaky pop and can give opposing pitchers fits at any time.

The Blue Jays are a lot healthier compared to their opponents but also a lot streakier, as the bats have been an absolute mess at times this season.

Capitalizing with runners in scoring position has been one of their heels this season (492 RBIs, 19th in the league), and the club has not hit for power as fans are used to seeing.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has not produced nearly the same stats at the plate this year, while Matt Chapman has really struggled over the past couple of months compared to the hot start he got off to back in April. Factor in some other bats that haven’t found consistency this season, like Daulton Varsho and Alejandro Kirk, and things can swing either way for the Jays in a hurry.

The one bright spot is the Jays did get back veteran Brandon Belt just prior to the playoffs, who boasts loads of playoff experience similar to George Springer and should give the club some added pop in the lineup. Bo Bichette has been the best hitter on the Jays this season, and if he, Springer, and Guerrero are all in sync, it could lead to trouble very quickly for the Twins’ pitching staff should the team find a way to put the ball in play and avoid the strikeouts.

Rounding Out the AL Wild Card Series

Prediction-wise, Fangraphs favors the Blue Jays in the Wild Card series at 56.4% odds to win, but the odds are close enough that it is really anybody’s series.

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Toronto needs their bats to pick up a pitching staff that has been excellent all season long, while the Twins will need some production from their big bats to go along with their fantastic starters, as long as they are healthy and in the lineup.

Interestingly enough, there is a possibility of a strong Canadian contingent at this series, as the border between the two countries is within a ten-hour drive in multiple directions, and Canucks usually show up to these games in the regular season.

By the end of the week, one of these two clubs will finally be back in the postseason win column, while the other will have to wait until next year to break the early exit playoff cycle.