Twins' first foe to come out of AL East

Twins' first foe to come out of AL East

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 2010 American League Central crown now officially belongs to the Twins, but one big question still remains when it comes to the team's first-round playoff series: Who will be Minnesota's opponent?

If the season had ended Tuesday, when the Twins became the first team in baseball to clinch a spot in the postseason, the team would be hosting the Rays at Target Field on Wednesday, Oct 6, to kick off the best-of-five AL Division Series.

Thanks to a 7 1/2-game lead over the Rangers for the second-best record of the division-leading AL teams, the Twins are virtually assured to have home-field advantage in the first round of the postseason. That means the Twins would host whichever team finished second in the AL East and earned the AL Wild Card spot.

Right now that would appear to be the Rays. Thanks to two straight head-to-head victories in a series between the two clubs, the Yankees have taken a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL East race.

The Twins have losing records against both the Rays (3-5) and the Yankees (2-4) this season. The Twins split a four-game series with Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field and dropped three out of four to the Rays at home. They also suffered series losses to the Yankees, dropping two of three games to New York in both series on the road and at home.

So is there one of those two teams that the Twins would rather face in the first round?

"We respect the Yankees and we respect Tampa, they both are in a great division and they have great teams," said Twins designated hitter Jim Thome. "I think more than anything, we just feel fortunate to be in that situation to face whoever it is. If it is Tampa, we need to focus on them. If it is New York, obviously they have great tradition and they have had a little bit of history in the past against the Twins, which I haven't been a part of. They've played well in the postseason against the Twins. Hopefully, if we do play them, we could change that."

The Twins' struggles against the Yankees in the postseason have been well-documented. Minnesota has faced New York in the first round in three of its past four playoff appearances. The Twins lost all three of those series to New York, winning a total of just two games over that span.

In 2009, the Twins were winless against the Yankees. They lost all seven regular-season matchups and then got swept out of the first round in three games by New York.

"Every year is different -- we've got a different team, they've got a different team," Michael Cuddyer said. "So yeah, obviously, we haven't beat them in the playoffs, but at the same time, this is a new year."

First-round struggles haven't been limited to just the Yankees. The Twins also suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of the A's back in 2006, when Minnesota had clinched home-field advantage by winning the AL Central title on the final day. The only time in the Twins' last five trips that they've made it to the second round came in 2002, when they defeated the A's in five games to reach the AL Championship Series, where they eventually lost to the Angels.

So can Minnesota overcome its struggles in the first round of the playoffs this year?

"I want to say just looking on the outside, I think our confidence is a lot better going in this year," said Joe Nathan, who underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in Spring Training. "I think we brought some guys in, some pieces to the puzzle this year that make us feel like we can compete with the best out there.

"I think it's going to be a hurdle to get over [the Yankees], having been a club that has done so well against us. It will be a big hurdle any time you face them, but at the same time, I think they are ready for it."

The Twins don't seem to be focused on who they will face in the first round but rather securing another accomplishment -- the best overall record in the AL. At 91-60, they have a chance to clinch home-field advantage for the first two rounds as they currently trail the Yankees (92-59) by just one game in the standings.

"It would be huge," Thome said of having home-field advantage. "Face it, look how well we've played here and the excitement that the fans have brought here on a daily basis at Target Field. We've fed off it and enjoyed it. It would be great to have that advantage. To say that it doesn't matter, it does matter and we would like to accomplish it, sure."

While the Twins will have to watch and wait for the AL East race to play out over the upcoming days, the club plans to focus on trying to just get itself healthy and continue to pick up wins as it chases the best overall record. And if there is an opponent they would rather face in this first round, the Twins certainly aren't about to let that on and according to Nathan, it's probably best for the club not to pick one at all.

"I think the one thing we can't do as a team is try and hope that we're going to face one team rather than the other," Nathan said. "Otherwise be careful what you wish for."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.