The last time these two teams met, both were in a fight for the playoffs. The Rays sought their first division title in their franchise’s history, while the Twins were simply trying to stay afloat in the AL Central race.
Needless to say, this series is pretty far removed from a September pennant chase, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be followed fairly closely.
For the Twins, this series is finishing strong.
This series will be the last they play without Joe Mauer, baring setbacks of course. A series win would put them at .500 when Mauer returns and a sweep would put them one game over, exactly where they wanted to be when Mauer returns.
No one has run away with the Central as the Twins waited for their star, but to look ahead for the time when they will have a healthy Mauer and trip up after having played well this April would be unfortunate. Far from a disaster, but if the Twins can take momentum into the second month of the year and get their catcher back, so much the better.
For the Rays, these three games are about getting started.
Last year at this time, the Rays were 14-11 and tied with Baltimore for the division lead. They had already swept Toronto and Boston, back-to-back, serving notice that they would no longer be the doormat of the AL East.
This season, the Rays have yet to really get out of the gate. They haven’t yet been swept in a series, but other than a rain shortened opening series against the Red Sox, they have yet to win one either.
Hot starts from Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria have helped to keep the Rays from digging a more serious hole, but their pitching has been suspect at best.
No Rays’ reliever has recorded a win, and the starters share just seven between them. Andy Sonnanstine was 4-1 last April on his way to winning five straight decisions; now he sits at 0-3 with an ERA of 7.78.
Many felt that a healthy Scott Kazmir would anchor a great young rotation, and while he has been solid this month (owning nearly half the Rays’ wins) the rest of the young guns have yet to follow his lead.
Still, no one doubts the talent of this club; counting them out of a competitive AL East just because of a slow start would be foolish at best. The Rays just need to find a good team in a slump and prove to themselves they can still beat anyone on any day.
And that is exactly what this series can be…for both teams.
Given the loss of Mauer and Scott Baker to start the season, the Twins should be very pleased with their position. Objectively, however, there is some disappointment with the way the season has kicked off.
The Twins boast the worst run differential in the AL and the second worst in baseball. The top two starters in their rotation are a combined 0-6 with a combined ERA of 8.6, they are routinely starting three to four players with a batting average below .215, and their bullpen is about as secure as a two dollar luggage lock.
This series could be a big boost for their confidence, if they can beat the Rays’ pitching around, get Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker back on track, and continue to get scoreless frames out of Jose Mijares.
The Rays, too, could use this series to reignite their confidence.
The Twins’ staff gives up a lot of home runs, and Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett will love running on the carpet in the Metrodome. The Twins’ bats can be shut down by junkballers and flamethrowers alike, so any game could be a blowout win for the Rays.
Whoever wins the series will feel quite good about having done so, and could use it as a great spring board into May and beyond. The question is, with such a great chance in place for the taking, which of these struggling but talented teams can rise to the occasion?