Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey will battle for the final spot in long relief in the Twins‘ bullpen once the American League playoffs begin next week, according to manager Ron Gardenhire. The team will start Francisco Liriano in Game 1, Carl Pavano in Game 2, and Brian Duensing in Game 3 of their ALDS matchup with either New York or Tampa Bay.

Gardenhire also noted that right-hander Nick Blackburn would get the Game 4 nod if necessary.

Gardenhire‘s decision-making has gotten to be nearly beyond reproach: He has led the Twins to six division titles in nine seasons and perennially gets the most out of his personnel in order to overcome high rates of attrition among his most talented players. If he doesn’t win the Manager of the Year award this season, there ought to be an investigation.

That said, Gardenhire is wrong on this point. Blackburn has had a great month since being recalled from Triple-A, but his numbers since August 23 (1.97 ERA with a WHIP a shade under 1.00) cannot erase the misery of his first half. Blackburn had a 6.66 ERA and a WHIP pushing 1.70 when he was sent down in July.


Blackburn vs. Baker

Furthermore, since his return from the abyss, Blackburn has faced the following teams in his seven appearances: Seattle, Texas, Detroit, Texas again, Cleveland, Oakland, and Cleveland again. The Rangers will make the postseason, but the Twins would not see them until a potential ALCS meeting. The others are non-contenders with poor offenses.

On the other hand, Scott Baker continues to deliver underrated but solid performances. After missing three starts in September with a sore elbow, Baker returned apparently at full strength last week. He held the opposing Indians to just two runs (one earned) on four hits and one walk in five innings, punching out seven. For the season, Baker now has 139 strikeouts and 39 walks in 165.1 innings pitched.

That strikeout rate is the best of Baker’s six-year career, and the walk rate is his best since 2007. His .326 BABIP against suggests he’s gotten very unlucky on his way to a 4.52 ERA, though Baker has always battled to keep the ball on the ground and his 1.20 home runs per nine innings is a potential problem against AL East maulers like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Evan Longoria.


Three Starters or Four?

Crucially, though, Baker could operate without fear of giving up too many long balls if he pitched in the Twins’ spacious new home, Target Field. A Game 4 matchup in the first round would be on the road, but because of the shortened five-game series format, the Twins would do well not to use a fourth starter in that series anyway. Liriano, Pavano, and Duensing would give them the best chance to win such a series.

Having reached the best-of-seven ALCS, then, the Twins could expand their rotation to make room for Baker. A Game 3 or 4 start in the second round of the playoffs would be at home, and Baker would be the man for the job.

In the meantime, the Twins’ bullpen (which lacks a ground-ball oriented right-hander) could benefit from the injection of Blackburn, a decent option for middle-inning relief in a hitter’s park like Yankee Stadium.

Blackburn is a fine pitcher, and fits the Twins’ organizational philosophy of pitching to contact and keeping the ball down. That makes him the easy choice for Gardenhire and his staff.

Given Baker’s better all-around skill set, however, and the need for power stuff to face the vaunted lineups of either New York or Tampa Bay, the Twins would be better-suited to hand the ball to their more veteran hurler if they advance beyond the first round of the AL playoffs.

Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and a B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.

Read more MLB news on