Wednesday's sweep-clinching victory over the Dodgers improved the Twins' record to 42-35. With 77 games now in the books, we are just four games short of the official halfway point of the season. With yesterday's day off, I thought it might be a good opportunity to step back and take a look at the season up to this point; the good, the bad and the ugly. Up to this point, the Twins' 2006 season has been one of the most bizarre seasons I've ever followed. There have been some towering highs and some utterly depressing lows. There has been some historical greatness and historical badness. Let's take a look at the top stories for the Twins in the first half of the 2006 season. If I miss anything or if you have any additional thoughts on the topics I list, feel free to add on in the comments section.
* The Twins are currently as hot as can be, having won 17 of their last 19 ballgames. As SBG notes, this might be the best 20 (er, 19) game stretch in team history. The turnaround during this span of 19 games has been dramatic. After struggling to score runs through the first couple months of the season and often looking just as bad (if not worse) as they did last year when they were the worst team in the league offensively, the Twins have averaged an impressive six runs per game, and since losing 9-7 to Baltimore on June 10, the Twins pitching staff has allowed more than three runs in a game only twice. In the entire month of June, they have allowed 4+ runs just eight times. Compare that to the months of April and May, in which the Twins' staff allowed 4+ runs 17 times apiece.
* Even more outrageous than the Twins' dramatic turnaround is the fact that the two teams ahead of them have pretty much played just as well. Despite their dazzling string of victories, the Twins have made up almost no ground in the AL Central after putting themselves in a deep hole with their poor play in the first couple months of the season. Up to this point, the Tigers are having a season that looks eerily similar to the one the White Sox had in 2005 -- a team that had previously finished near the bottom of the division coming out of the gates strong thanks to some terrific starting pitching and posting an amazing record in the first half of the season. The big question for the Tigers now will be whether they will continue their outstanding play into the second half and postseason like the Sox did last year or they will fade in the second half a la the 2001 Twins and the 2003 Royals.
* The M&M Boys are living up to their billing, just one year later than advertised. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau failed to live up lofty expectations in the heart of the Twins lineup last year, but that has to be seen acceptable for a pair of guys under the age of 25 and both playing their first full seasons at the Major League level. This year, Mauer has been the best hitter in the majors, leading the league with in batting average and on-base percentage at .392 and .458, respectively. While the home runs and RBI are not quite there yet, Mauer has notched an impressive 21 doubles, placing him just six behind the league leader, Michael Young. Morneau, meanwhile, has been one of the American League's premier power hitters. He has already racked up 19 home runs and 64 RBI, bringing him pretty darn close to his 2005 season totals in both categories (22/79). While Morneau's plate discipline hasn't improved much, he is using the whole field and is hitting for very good average at .288. These young lefties, along with the steadily emerging Jason Kubel, are helping the team immensely right now and also provide a ton of hope for the next several years.
* After spending a month and a half in the bullpen, Francisco Liriano finally got his chance at a regular spot in the starting rotation, and to say he's made the most of it would be a supreme understatement. Liriano has made eight starts so far, and the numbers have been staggering. He has won seven of the eight games. He has allowed more than two runs only once. He has not allowed more than three. He has added a new dimension to his game. While he can still dominate with strikeouts (as evidenced by his 11-K performance against the Pirates and eight K's in his last start) he is now inducing tons of ground balls and using fewer pitches to get outs. In his most recent outing against the Dodgers, Liriano issued no walks in a start for just the second time in his ML career and the first time this year. Liriano has not simply been the best young starter in the league. Since joining the Twins' rotation on May 19, he has been the best pitcher in baseball. Period. And he's only 22 years old.
* While Liriano's rookie status has brought him a lot of glamour, the Twins true ace, Johan Santana, is quietly on pace for his best season yet. Santana leads the American League in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, innings pitched and opponents' batting average (among starters). Heck, he even ranks second in that pesky wins statistic. And yet, it is almost certain that he will not be the AL starter in the All Star game. Go figure. (Speaking of All Star snubs, Ozzie Guillen continues to hint that A.J. Pierzynski might be his backup catcher on the AL All Star roster. I don't have much respect for Guillen, but whatever shreds I did have will fly right out the window if Mauer is not in Pittsburgh on July 11.)
* Color me embarrassed. Before the season, I predicted that Rondell White would be a huge impact player for the Twins' lineup and would help fuel a major improvement for an offense that was perhaps the league's worst in 2005. Much to my surprise, White has been an unmitigated disaster, "hitting" .182/.204/.215 in 181 at-bats without a single home run. I can't feel too stupid about my prediction, because in all honesty there was absolutely no way to see such an atrocious season on the way for Rondell. I wasn't exactly the only person who thought White would be a valuable addition for the Twins' offense. Whether White's complete worthlessness is the result him very suddenly feeling his 34 years of age or a shoulder injury that might be more of a factor than anyone has let on is unknown, we must face one sad truth: his performance this year could easily be the least productive by a designated hitter in baseball history. Who could have possibly seen that coming?
* Almost as surprising to me as the ineptitude of White has been the emergence of Michael Cuddyer as a solid run-producing hitter. In 65 games, Cuddyer has hit .272/.373/.513. He has hit 11 home runs and driven in 44 runs while drawing 33 walks... to give you an idea of how much of a breakout season this is for Cuddy, take a look at his previous career highs in those categories: 12 HR, 45 RBI, 41 BB. Essentially, Cuddyer is on pace to double his career highs in some of the most important stats for a cleanup hitter. Most importantly, after hitting .209/.306/.269 with runners in scoring position last year, Cuddyer is hitting .324/.457/.634 in such situations this year.
* 2006 has been a big year for Twins bloggers. In addition to the fact that quality new Twins blogs are popping up on a seemingly daily basis, the blogosphere has gained an increased level of credibility based on the fact that many of us clearly showed that we would be more adept at running the ballclub than Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire. And this isn't just me bragging... if you look at what pretty much ANY Twins blogger was writing just before the season started, you will find heavy criticism of the team's decision to start Juan Castro and Tony Batista on the left side of the infield. Batista hit a miserable .236/.303/.386 and Castro hit an even uglier .231/.258/.308, while both played relatively atrocious defense. I sincerely doubt it's a complete coincidence that the Twins' winning streaks have come almost immediately after the departure of The Dictatorship.
* Liriano's dominance has made a lot of hitters look silly, but it has probably made no one look more silly than Mr. Brian Sabean. Sabean is, of course, the San Francisco GM who traded the Twins Liriano along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in return for one year of A.J. Pierzynski's services. Aside Liriano's dominance, Nathan and Bonser are both key pieces in the Twins' pitching staff as well. Nathan has been as dominant as ever, picking up 13 saves and posting a 1.91 ERA and a magnicient 47:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .176 average. Bonser hasn't been quite as incredible as the other two members of the Sabean trio, but has made six starts since being called up last month, going 2-1 with a 4.68 ERA. Meanwhile, Pierzynski is helping the White Sox try and win another World Series and the Giants are thinking about how nice it would be to have a dominant closer and a couple promising young starters to complement Matt Cain.
* Two weeks ago I wrote about the stark contrast between the Twins brilliant play at home and their miserable play on the road. Even after going 5-1 on their most recent road trip, the Twins are just 15-25 on the road compared to a stellar 27-10 at home. The team's success at home this year and inexplicable struggles on the road have been one of the most intriguing stories of the first half of the year, but I suspect it will even out a bit in the second half.
There are probably some other big storylines that I'm missing, but those listed above are the ones that have stood out most to me over the first half of the season. Even though the Twins have a minimal chance at making the postseason, I find myself very excited to watch them play in the second half of the year. There will be plenty more fun stories to follow over the next 85 games. Will Torii Hunter be traded? Can Liriano, Bartlett and Kubel keep up their solid play and finish strong? What will Mauer's average be come season's end? Can Morneau hit 40 homers? Who will be called up and auditioned in September?
Even if the Twins don't make an unlikely postseason charge this year, there is still plenty of reason to watch and plenty to be excited about. At the very least, we are in a better situation than some fans.