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?


At 9/27/2006 7:40 AM, Blogger Moss said...

Whowouldathunk? Sure as heck not Moss. It has been quite a season.

As much as Moss loves playoffs, this season they are gravy. The season will be memorable even if the Yanks pound the Twins into submission. The same can't be said for 2003-2004. Those teams weren't all that memorable, really, and they played/managed themselves out of the playoffs. This year's team can play as though they have nothing to lose.

Moss isn't saying that the Twins should just be happy to be here, but rather that they should be really proud of what they have already pulled off, defying anyone's expectations and all.

At 9/27/2006 3:02 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

I think this team could be the best Twins team since at least '91-92, particularly if you factor in Liriano, but I do have especially fond memories of the 2003 season--when that team also seemed almost dead, but rallied, and then almost couldn't lose in the last 6 weeks. That September, when the Twins swept the White Sox at home with about 40k in the dome each night, was incredibly exciting. Being there for the last game of the series to see Jacque Jones hit two homers off Bartolo Colon is something I'll remember until I'm old and senile.

But 2004? Yeah, memorable mostly for Johan's brilliance and Gardy's fear of using Jesse Crain in the postseason.

At 9/28/2006 8:56 AM, Blogger Batgirl said...

Dear Mr. Wig,

That series against the Sox in the Dome was amazing. The Twins were beat up and Gardy said they had to bow their heads and play. Batgirl was deathly ill at the time and Goober told her she had to bow her head and go, and she did, and it was just incredible. All these teams have given us some wonderful moments (2004 had a pretty good Sucking Time too, from what I recall) but the run that you describe will certainly be one for the ages.


At 9/28/2006 5:42 PM, Blogger WV and/or RK said...

I like the blog, keep up the good work.

You forgot to mention that also back in June Batista and Castro were still surgically attached to the Field Turf and watching balls skitter past them helplessly.

I'd pretty unbelievable all that's happened. I didn't realize until I read your post that Crain has had such a low ERA in that span. With all the good stories on this team it's tough to keep it straight.

At 10/02/2006 9:13 AM, Blogger Moss said...

Another chapter of the fairytale is finished.


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