Twins advance and NHL is underway!

Marc Elliott

TWINS WIN! against the Blue Jays. Photo by Kelly Marschel.

MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Twins have prevailed against the Toronto Blue Jays in their best-of-three series in a two-game sweep of their foes from north of the 49th parallel.

In a rare occurrence on a baseball diamond Twins rookie Royce Lewis hit homeruns in his first two playoff plate appearances ever. This is a feat that only two other players have accomplished in MLB since 1901. Yes, that's pretty rare at that. He hit a two-run blast in the first and followed that up with a solo shot in the third inning.

The Jays would put up a run in the sixth and that was it for a 3-1 final. In Game Two the Twins had starter Sonny Gray on the mound while the Jays had former Twins hurler Jose Berrios going. Both players had their best stuff working in this game and it took the Twins four innings to finally score a couple of runs, and that was it for scoring for the 2-0 game.

In an inexplicable managerial move before the Twins scored in the fourth inning, Jays skipper John Schneider pulled Berrios for reliever Yusei Kikuchi and that is when the Twins finally broke through. Schneider is getting second-guessed ad infinitum about this move. And he should be.

Berrios was having a very good performance up to the point Schneider yanked him. I recall saying to myself that if he stays in the game the Twins were going to have a tough time getting any runs off of him. The strange part is that even back in the second inning it appeared as if Schneider was looking for an opportunity to pull him and make the change. In that case he was clearly playing to some advanced analytics to make his moves for him.

For me, I'll stick with my eyeball test. Berrios would have tired at some point and would have had to be changed out, but he was literally sailing along when Schneider made his ill-fated move.

Well, too bad, so sad. Don't get me wrong though, analytics have their place in sports but sometimes are better when they get overruled by what is happening on the field. It's a judgment call that Schneider erred on.

So, the Twins swept the Jays and got their invite to go to Houston to see if they can knock off the defending World Series Champion.  

The Houston Astros are a very good baseball club. It isn't a stretch to say they have been one of the top two or three teams in MLB the past few years. They have appeared in four of the last six World Series, winning two of them. Are they that good again this season?

They are, with the caveat being that they are a beatable team. The Twins took the season series from them 4-2. They haven't met since late May and in examining the 'Stros September schedule they went 12-14.  By the time the first pitch is thrown in this series the Astros will have had the better part of the week off. In that scenario the "rest or rust" question must be asked. If a team is beat up I say it is rest. If they are in good shape and not playing any games I say rust.

Baseball relies heavily on repetitive motions, muscle memory and timing. In my book I feel that a team is better off to keep playing than not.

Houston has a good and consistent manager in Dusty Baker. He is a baseball lifer and one of the game's good guys. Nothing flashy, just consistently great play by his teams driven by old-school baseball thinking.

In looking at some basic comps, the 'Stros are slightly better in the hitting department going 4th/.259 team avg., to the Twins 21st/.243. They were 5th in runs/827 to the Twins 10th/778. The scales tip to the Twins in pitching. In Earned Run Average they were 6th/3.87 to Houstons 8th/.394. In WHIP (walks, hits, innings pitched) the Twins were 4th/1.20 to the 'Stros 14th/1.28.

How do the baseball scribes and Vegas oddsmakers feel about this series? Let's just say that no one is taking the Twins here. Many of them are taking Houston in four games in the best of five. The reality is the Astros have the experience factor with them. They have home field.

But I believe this series sets up well for the Twins. If they split or sweep in Houston they'll be in the driver's seat. I'm going Twins all the way! The National Hockey League will begin its 105th season this week with three games on the schedule on Tuesday the 10th.

Our Minnesota Wild will face the defending Eastern Conference Champion Florida Panthers the 12th in St. Paul for their season and home opener. There will be one game in particular I'll view with sheer enjoyment when the Montreal Canadiens meet the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Wednesday night. What is the highlight here? That will be in the pregame when the 48th Highlanders Bagpipe and Drum Corps perform. They have appeared at every Leaf season opener since 1931.  If you've never witnessed a Pipe and Drums performance before all I can tell you is as soon as they start to play the hair on the back of your neck will be standing up. It is that powerful. It also adds a pomp and circumstance to the beginning of the season that no other sports leagues can begin to match.

As this campaign commences the league finds itself in relatively good shape. That isn't to say there aren't some issues to deal with but overall, both on and off the ice, the league and game are mostly in a good way. I will dig into some concerns as the season unfolds.

There is one I'll speak to right now and it is the possibility of another expansion. Allow me to say right here that I am against it. When the league finally got to 32 teams, I felt that it should go no further. Thirty-two is a great number. You can have equal numbers of conferences and divisions and teams in them and it is balanced. If there were any more teams I feel the league and the game would get watered down a bit.

I never held this opinion prior to the league getting to the current number of teams, but I do now. To have success you have to maintain a very healthy desire for your product while not saturating your fanbase with it. I think it's a fine line and I hope the league doesn't step over it.

Going into the season, which teams would I consider to be in my "Favored Four"? It is not an easy question to answer. I don't view the Wild being in that group at this point. 

My four preseason picks for elite Stanley Cup contenders are the defending Cup Champion Vegas Golden Knights, the Dallas Stars, the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes. These are subject to change. I believe the Wild will struggle to stay in the top half of the league this year. The season is here! Let it begin! PEACE