Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Twins culminate phenomenal turnaround with playoff berth.

Who woulda thunk it?

On June 7, the Minnesota Twins had lost to the Seattle Mariners 10-9. That was their seventh loss in nine games on what had been an absolutely listless West Coast road trip. What’s worse is their slugger of the future, first baseman Justin Morneau, had a paltry .236 average with only 11 home runs and 38 RBI.

The left side of the infield featured the virtually immobile Tony Batista at third base and Juan Castro at shortstop. Their all-star closer, Joe Nathan, had only seven save opportunities in two months.

A 7-3 victory over the Mariners the next day was a somewhat positive note on what was otherwise a pathetic 3-7 road trip. Who would have guessed that victory would have been one of 68 wins over the next ninety eight contests??!!

From a record of 25 wins and 33 losses to 93-63 and a spot in the AL playoffs!

It’s just one amazing stat for a team that has continually defied the odds the past 3 ½ months.

For me, the most telling aspect of the Twins’ resiliency took place after an August 7 loss to the Tigers in Detroit. Young ace Francisco Liriano left that game after four innings when he re-aggravated his elbow on his pitching arm. The Twins looked to be without their young stud indefinitely and found themselves 10 ½ games behind the Tigers.

Fast forward seven weeks. Liriano pitched exactly two innings in that span. Add to that the loss of reliable veteran starter Brad Radke in late August --- and inexplicably the Twins are only one game out of the AL Central division lead.

How did this happen?

Let us count the ways.

-On that fateful road swing in early June, manager Ron Gardenhire challenged Morneau to get focused on baseball instead of wasting his talent. The result? Morneau now has 34 home runs (the first Twin to hit 30+ since 1987), 129 RBI to go with a .324 batting average. He has gone from overrated prospect to complete hitter in less than 100 games.

-Catcher Joe Mauer has seemed to blossom into the pure hitter the Twins drafted #1 overall in 2001. He hasn’t been below .340 since late May and is in good position to be the first catcher in over 60 years to win a batting title.

-Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. The Twins wisely jettisoned Batista and Castro, and their limited range, for the younger, rangier tandem of Punto and Bartlett. Punto was expected to platoon at third with Terry Tiffee. His spectacular play at the hot corner, combined with hitting nearly .300 in the second spot in the batting order, made it impossible for Gardenhire to keep him out of the lineup.

-Michael Cuddyer. The plan coming in to the ’06 season was to platoon Cuddyer in right field with Jason Kubel. “Cuddy” was later entrusted with the cleanup spot in the batting order where he now has over 100 RBI.

-The bullpen. The lefty-righty combination of Dennys Reyes and Pat Neshek in the seventh inning, Jesse Crain in the eighth and Nathan as closer, the Twins have one of the deepest, most effective bullpens in all of baseball. The only negative lately is Juan Rincon seemingly giving up a run every outing. It would be a major coup if he can regain his early season form when he was entrusted with the eighth inning. Throw in a guy like Matt Guerrier who effectively eats up innings when a starter has a subpar outing and the Twins are virtually unbeatable when leading after six innings.

-Torii Hunter. Continued gold glove defense in center field, despite a bum ankle he’s dealt with all year. Throw in 30 home runs in the six spot of the batting order and you have the most formidable lineup the Twins have had under Gardenhire’s tenure.

-Last but not least, Johan Santana. He only leads the AL in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched (YAWN) and has had yet another stellar second half of the season (9-1). The question isn’t whether he’ll win his second AL Cy Young award in three years, rather will he win it unanimously?

Congratulations to the Minnesota Twins on making the playoffs.

I fully admit that I never saw this coming.

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