While the Royals have been resting comfortably in the position of Central Division champs, the Minnesota Twins have been scratching and clawing their way into the Wild Card race. Nearly every observer had the Twins finishing in the cellar of the Central this year, but the plucky kids from up north have surprised many by hanging around in contention all summer. With just three games remaining, they are 83-76, one game back of Houston for the last Wild Card spot. They need this series to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The Twins have remained competitive despite scoring just the seventh-most runs and allowing the ninth-most runs. They have been a much better team at home, going 46-32 overall, and hitting .266/.324/.432 at Target Field compared to .231/.289/.375 on the road. The Twins are just tenth in home runs hit, but feature three players in the 20-home run club, and a fourth in Miguel Sano who would certainly be in that club had he spent all year with the team. Torii Hunter has been in decline all season, hitting .219/.265/.367 since the All-Star break, one of the lowest marks in the league over that time.
Minnesota is not a patient team, drawing the fourth-fewest walks. They have been very good with runners on in scoring position, hitting .282/.353/.445 in those situations, third-best in the American League. Top prospect Byron Buxton has struggled a bit since reaching the big leagues, but could see some action this series.
Minnesota has been a poor baserunning team this year and steal bases at a 64% clip. Their defense is below average with Brian Dozier and Torii Hunter acting as weak spots on the field. Kurt Suzuki has thrown out just 15% of would-be basestealers this year, the second-worst mark among catchers with at least 500 innings caught.
Ervin Santana missed the first 100 games of the season with a PED suspension but is really coming into his own down the stretch. He has a 1.47 ERA over his last six starts with over a strikeout per inning, relying on his plus slider. Tommy Milone has split his four starts against the Royals with a 3.75 ERA in 24 innings. Milone is the kind of soft-tossing lefty the Royals have typically struggled against all year, although they finally figured out John Danks last night.
The Twins have yet to officially announce a starter for Sunday's game, but appear to be leaning towards starting Kyle Gibson on short rest. The other option would be to start Phil Hughes, who has been recovering from illness and is pitching out of the bullpen. Gibson is 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA against the Royals this year, and tossed six shutout innings on Wednesday against Cleveland.
The typically reliable Glen Perkins has had a 6.98 ERA since the All-Star break with seven home runs allowed in just 19 1/3 innings. Perkins has also been nursing an ailing back, with Kevin Jepsen taking over closing duties until Perkins is 100%. Jepsen has a 1.67 ERA since being acquired by the Twins, converting 10-of-11 save opportunities. Twins relievers have the lowest strikeout rate in the league with relievers like Blaine Boyer and Casey Fien still posting low ERAs despite an inability to miss bats.
The Twins have been hot winning five of six and eight of their last eleven. They have gone just 7-9 against the Royals this year, including just 2-4 against them at Target Field. Ned Yost's bunch will probably be without Salvador Perez, Kendrys Morales, and possibly Lorenzo Cain for some of this series due to minor injuries. The Royals have a recent history of playing well in October, and ending the regular season on a high note could help them "flip the switch" for the post-season.