The Yankees missed the postseason last year and have returned with a vengeance. The Twins lost their tiebreaker last season but are back with a chance to pull off what could go down as an all-time first-round upset.
Times have changed a bit since these two clubs met in the same series in 2003 and '04. Then, the Yankees were still fresh off their dynasty years, but the Twins had Johan Santana and a roster full of hopefuls. Even so, the Bombers took both series en route to a World Series appearance in 2003 and an epic ALCS clash with the Red Sox in '04.
This time around, the Yanks enter the AL Division Series with the best record in baseball, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a whole lot more. After spending $423.5 million last winter on long-term contracts for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, their hitting and pitching are at the top of the AL, and they're playing in a brand-new ballpark where immediate greatness is expected.
The Twins, meanwhile, had an uphill climb just to arrive in New York. Needing a near-miracle and a 163rd game to clinch the division title, they statistically speaking cannot compete with the Yankees' offensive juggernaut.
Then again, it is a five-game series, stranger things have happened, and the Twins have had a knack for coming through in tight spots. Though their pitching may not be quite as fearsome as that of the Yankees, they found a way to pull through against some rather stiff competition -- Zack Greinke, for one -- during the final week of the season. Certainly, they are capable of doing so again.
That run, though, left Minnesota's rotation and bullpen in shambles, while New York has Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettitte all ready to start on full rest. It is an advantage, to be sure. And the Yankees will soon find out if that advantage is enough to win.
Twins: What more can be said about Joe Mauer? The odds-on favorite for the AL MVP Award, Mauer just completed his finest season to date, with a batting title and a career-high 28 home runs, all while missing a month and submitting to the rigors of daily life behind the plate. But the Twins' offense hardly ends with Mauer. Jason Kubel, for one, has given Ron Gardenhire's club plenty of left-handed pop in the absence of the injured Justin Morneau, and former No. 1 draft pick Delmon Young has blossomed late in September, with 10 RBIs over the final weekend of the regular season. Throw in the career year of Michael Cuddyer, and Minnesota has an offense capable of challenging anyone in baseball.
Yankees: Where to start? Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, Hideki Matsui, Nick Swisher and Johnny Damon have all hit more than 20 home runs this year, and none of them are even considered the Yankee with the best chance of being named the AL's Most Valuable Player. That would be shortstop and captain Derek Jeter, who's been a rock at the top of the lineup with his best offensive year since his almost-MVP campaign of 2006. The Yanks are at the top of the league in almost every offensive category and went 7-0 against the Twins in the regular season. Again, what's not to like?
1. Minnesota's Jason Kubel vs. New York's Phil Coke. All season long, the Yankees have asked Coke to record big outs against some of the most fearsome lefty batters in the game. Kubel is developing into that type of player for the Twins, and without Morneau in the lineup, he is by far Minnesota's best left-handed threat. Almost certain to greet him out of the bullpen is Coke, manager Joe Girardi's most trusted lefty reliever. To date, Kubel is 0-for-4 against Coke, and New York will be looking for more of the same in October.
2. The heart of the Yankees' order vs. Minnesota's Joe Nathan. One of baseball's best late-inning offenses is about to meet one of its best closers. Nathan's first outing in New York this season was not a pretty one, when the Yanks tagged him for three runs in a walk-off win back in May. But last year, Nathan was nearly flawless in seven regular-season appearances against the Bombers. The Bombers have been so prolific at scoring runs late in games all season long, and it is now up to Nathan to stop them.
Twins: Kudos to their rotation for making it this far. But Minnesota's starters have been stretched thin by the club's run to the postseason, and their reward is a date with the mighty Yankees offense. Former Yankee Carl Pavano is the only Twins starter who has enjoyed success against the Bombers this season, but the Yanks have already seen him twice and will be licking their chops at the prospect of a third meeting. The Twins aren't a group of hard throwers, and finesse pitchers don't generally thrive at the new Yankee Stadium.
Yankees: It may seem strange to list probable AL Cy Young Award contender Sabathia as a potential weakness, but as good as he's been down the stretch and in regular seasons past, the big guy has a 7.92 ERA in five career playoff starts. He'll have to come up big here to dispel thoughts that his huge regular-season workload doesn't leave him gassed come October -- though the Yankees have gone out of their way to keep their ace rested headed into the postseason.
The Twins will win if ... they can get to a pumped-up Sabathia early in Game 1, earn at least a split to take the series back to the Metrodome, and watch their bats come alive while their pitchers hold their own. The Twins will not beat the Yankees in a series of slugfests, but they can't match zeroes with Sabathia and Burnett forever, either. They'll need their starters to pitch deep into games.
The Yankees will win if ... they don't let the pressure get to them. They have been a significantly better team than the Twins on both sides of the ball during the regular season and now is the time to show it on the field when it counts. Rodriguez, of course, will have the chance to redeem his past October letdowns in the Bronx, and Sabathia can begin to create a new CC playoff legacy. As tough as it might be to play in front of some of the most demanding fans in sports, it may behoove Girardi to tell his club only three words before the series starts: "Just have fun."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.