Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Out of Fairytales

In what had once looked like a lost season, with the Twins posting a 25-33 record and trailing the White Sox by 11 games and the Tigers by 11.5 games on June 7, Minnesota clinched at least the wild card berth with the team's 93rd win last night.

After that low point in June, management made a few big changes, most notably replacing the regular 3rd baseman and Shortstop with a career utilityman and a 26 year-old rookie who supposedly lacked the leadership qualities and "fire in the belly" to play in the major leagues. Nick Punto was just a stopgap to improve the fielding at 3rd base; and some insiders intimated that this was Jason Bartlett's last chance to stick with the club. The team immediately started to play better, and, after winning 7 straight games, climbed back to the .500 mark with a 34-34 record on June 18.

Late that night, I wrote on the Bat Cave bulletin board:

Right now, the Twins have 94 games left. To reach 90 wins would require a 56-38 record the rest of the way, a .596 clip. That might be too optimistic to expect of the team at this point, but I would be very pleased to see the team approach that kind of record, regardless of in what place the Twins finish.

Of course, the team since then has exceeded not only my expectations, but my wildest hopes. Heading into tonight's game with the Royals, the Twins have a 93-63 record with 6 games to play. How did this happen?!

On the morning of June 20th...

Brad Radke was 5-7 with a 5.83 ERA. Afterwards, he was 7-2 with a 3.04 ERA--and the Twins were 10-3 in his starts--even while he was pitching with a torn labrum.

Francisco Liriano had made just 6 starts, posting a 5-1, 1.50 mark. Afterwards, he continued to dominate opponents with a 6-2 record and 2.15 ERA in 10 starts (although the Twins lost both his no-decisions).

Boof Bonser was 1-1 with a 5.81 ERA. Since then, he's 6-4 with a 3.52 ERA and has been an invaluable substitute for Liriano in the rotation; the team is 7-2 in Bonser starts since he took Cisco's place on August 12th. In postseason, he ought to be the #2 starter in the rotation.

Carlos Silva was 3-8 with a 7.07 ERA. Since then, 7-6 with a 5.17 ERA. Erratic, but occasionally effective, enough so that the Twins have a 10-8 record in his starts since June 21st.

Johan Santana was 7-4 with a 2.87 ERA. Since then, 11-2 with a 2.80 ERA, with the Twins going 15-3 in his starts.

Jesse Crain had a 5.51 ERA. Since then, a 1.86 ERA.

Dennys Reyes had just 16 appearances, posting a 1.65 ERA. Since then, a 0.54 ERA... 2 earned runs in 36 apps.

Pat Neshek wasn't with the team. Since his first appearance on July 7th, he has a 2.31 ERA and 0.80 WHIP.

Justin Morneau was hitting .267/.324/.522; just over a week before, he'd been at .235/.295/.454 and there was some talk of him possibly going back down to AAA. For whatever reason, the light switched on with him in mid-June. He was 16-36 with 5 HR and 18 RBI from June 8-18 to help the Twins get to .500, and he's gone on to hit .363/.422/.598 since.

Torii Hunter was hitting .266/.340/.425. Since then, he's been a-hackin'... balls over the wall while batting .290/.324/.545. At times, since returning in late July from a foot injury, he has struggled to cover his territory in Centerfield, but there's no question that his bat has been a potent force in the Twins offense since late August.

Joe Mauer was carrying the offense with a .380/.447/.528 line when the team was at .500 in June. Since then, even through talk of a slump and the grind of playing behind the plate all summer, he's still hit a great .323/.425/.493. If it's possible for a Sports Illustrated cover subject who's leading the league in hitting to have his contributions overlooked or taken for granted even by the team's own broadcasters and fans, I think that's the case with Joe Mauer. He has come up big for the Twins all year while playing the most demanding position on the diamond, and deserves to be hyped for the MVP award. But he didn't hit 30 homers and he's not one of the pirantas, so forget it.

Luis Castillo was hitting .286/.353/.363 (and sinking) and looked like he belonged on the DL. Since then, .304/.364/.377.

Michael Cuddyer had been part of the regular lineup for about 7 weeks, hitting .272/.371/.529 on the season. Since then, batting between Mauer and Morneau, he's continued to be solid at .280/.354/.475.

Nick Punto had joined the regular lineup for a little more than a week. He was hitting .287/.376/.352 on the season. Since then, Tiny Superhero has hit .300/.360/.395 while hoovering all balls in play at the hot corner.

Jason Bartlett had been with the team less than a week, hitting .389/.450/.444 in his first five games. He's been a huge upgrade over the deposed dictator, batting .314/.374/.404 while playing stellar defense on the season.

Rondell White was hitting .182/.209/.215. At that point, Ron Gardenhire had given up on him--he didn't get another at-bat while he was on the roster in June. After his "rehab" in AAA ended at the All-Star break, he's hit .317/.353/.549.

Jason Tyner and Josh Rabe would not join the team until the All-Star break. Rabe has hit .286/.314/.490 in a fill-in role, while Tyner has hit .316/.347/.359 as the team's fourth piranta.

A lot of this seemed wildly improbable, even inconceivable, back in June. Honestly, I still have some trouble accepting that it's real. Even a couple weeks ago, I had my doubts. But the team has been spinning its magic for over 3 months, now. Maybe it's the mania setting in, but at this point the only other team in the majors that I can see giving the Twins real trouble in a postseason series is the damn Yankees--and that's mainly because the New York lineup is so loaded. The Yankees pitching rotation of Johnson-Mussina- Wang-Wright doesn't look all that imposing this season. If Twins pitching can continue to work its mojo, or if the Yankees might be avoided altogether, it's looking like the Twins may prove to be the best team in baseball this year.

Back in June, who wouldathunk?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

All Right, For Moss...

Last night I heard Dick Bremer muse that Detroit's 5-game lead in the division to start the day may not really be 5 games. That is, if you consider how the Twins could win 3 of 4 against the Tigers this weekend, thereby making up 2 games in the standings right there. Easy-peasy!

Inspired by his impeccable reasoning, I'm going to assume that the Twins will play at a .750 clip the rest of the season. Roughly, that should leave the Twins with 99 wins and a breezy sail to the postseason. Was there ever a doubt? Put in the deposit for postseason tickets now, my friends.

Actually, I have been doubting the Twins' chances of holding off the White Sox, much less catching the Tigers, since Francisco Liriano went on the Disabled List. I figured Radke may not last the season, the gimps at 2nd base and in Centerfield were not inspiring any confidence in their future down the stretch, any number of the little "piranhas" could go belly-up at any time, and I'd written off Carlos Silva long ago. It seemed that the team leaned too much on Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano to be Supermen. With Liriano out of action for a significant length of time, how could the team win the 95 games or more to make a serious playoff bid?

As it's happened, the Twins are 13-10 since August 12, the first day Boof Bonser replaced Liriano in the rotation, and 3-2 in Bonser's starts. Good enough to make up 2 games on the White Sox, turning a deficit of 1.5 games into a half-game lead in the wild card race, while the Red Sox have tumbled from a half-game behind Minnesota to a full 6 games back. Even the Tigers have done the Twins the favor of slipping on a 9-16 skid to put Minnesota within 4 games of the division lead now--and only 3 games behind in the Loss column. Mighty considerate of the other guys to take a nap, just when the Twins must go without such an essential part of the team's success.

Still, do the Twins have the look of a legitimate pennant threat?

The Twins offense lately has often looked shaky, leading Batgirl to curse even worse than Bert Blyleven and the local press to make snide remarks about dead fish. In the last 10 games, the team has scored 2.7 runs per game. Luis Castillo missed an important series last weekend with an ankle injury, and Torii Hunter's bad foot still makes him a liability in Centerfield. Joe Mauer looks tired at the plate. Nick Punto and Jason Tyner have cooled off. The only help acquired by Terry Ryan is Phil Nevin, now hitting .210/.297/.398 as an AL player this season, as opposed to his .274/.335/.497 line in the 67 games he got to enjoy in the friendly environs of Wrigley Field and the NL. (Why do the Twins keep getting hitters after they go off the steroids?) Brad Radke has a stress fracture in his shoulder which may end his season and career. The starting rotation after Santana still seems like a grab bag, and nobody still knows for sure what Liriano may be able to contribute after he returns.

Yet, Johan Santana continues to be heroic as usual, winning one game after another. The team is 6-0 in Santana starts since placing Liriano on the DL, while the man has posted a 1.43 ERA; and, in fact, the Twins have not lost in a Santana start since July 9, a streak of 11 wins. Cy Young, once again, is saving his team's season.

In a race where the competition is playing like it belongs in the playoffs, perhaps just one Superman pitcher would not be enough to lift his team over the top. Santana has five more starts; and even if the team can win them all, to reach 95 wins the Twins would still need a 10-9 mark in the other remaining games, which is better than the team has been doing since losing Liriano. But as long as the White Sox and Tigers continue to struggle with their own flaws, the story could have a happier ending.

Everything else about the season has been so improbable, why not?