Thursday, July 27, 2006

Running Wild

Wow. What an amazing comeback. Its been a crazy, intense, exciting, exhilirating, and enjoyable past couple weeks. The Twins already had an historical run in June, but July has been just as good if not better. Remember, in June, despite going 18-1 at one point, the Twins were making up no ground. Well, that's now changed.

Back then, we were saying it didn't mean much and things looked dim, and many weren't exactingly looking forward to the time when they had to play their AL Central counterparts instead of weak NL teams. It turns out we were far off. The Twins have gone 16-6 in July play, managing sweeps of the White Sox and the Devil Rays.

Everything has come together in some way, shape or form. Take a look at this year compared to last year. Last year, we had J.C. Romero to use against left-handers. J.C. was a clubhouse cancer, had awful control, and seemed to let every inherited runner score. This year, instead, we have Dennys Reyes, who has stranded the last 13 runners he's inherited while posting a 0.75 ERA in his last 20 appearances. Compared to J.C., he's a godsend.

How about this year's version of Justin Morneau? Last year, he was hot for about two weeks, after a concussion in May, and then looked dead for the rest of the year, posting Carl Everett-like numbers instead of Harmon Killebrew ones. This year, he has been hot for over two months. He now, after a 3-for-4 game with a home run (another big one off a lefty, this time Mark Buehrle) and 3 RBI yesterday, Justin is hitting .313 with 27 home runs and 84 RBI. Having a big slugger has made all the difference in the lineup, even though the Twins have only hit more home runs as a team than one squad in the league -- the Royals.

The list goes on. Jason Bartlett, who is hitting .336 after a three-hit game yesterday, or Nick Punto, who with two singles yesterday is now on an 18-game hitting streak. The bullpen has been lights-out. Fransisco Liriano and Johan Santana both have 12 wins and are on top of the AL leaders for pitching in nearly every category.

The most enjoyable aspect of this run is knowing that meaningful games will be played throughout the rest of the year. This runs constrast to the divisional titles in 2002-2004, in which the Twins had the divison mostly locked up by August. Beyond that, the knowledge that the Twins have the scariest pitching staff to potentially be in the playoffs is wonderful. With their two aces, Brad Radke (who has been very good in the postseason), and the best bullpen in the MLB, thats a lot to take up against most anyone.

However, despite being tied against with the White Sox, the Twins still need to contend with the New York Yankees and possibly the Toronto Blue Jays along with the Sox. With a ninth-inning Jason Giambi home run, the Yanks beat the Texas Rangers 8-7 last night, giving them a 1/2-game lead over the White Sox and our Twins.

The good, or maybe bad news, is that the Twins have a lot of control over their destiny. In the final two months, the Twins will play a four-game series against the Blue Jays, a three-game series in New York, ten games against the Tigers (including this weekend's series), and nine more against the White Sox. That's 26 key games, with series against contenders Texas and Boston along the way.

It seems that the writers and analysists at ESPN are still writing the Twins off. On Baseball Tonight, Orel Hersheisher wrote the Twins off completely, suggesting that the White Sox will come around again with their pitching and the Twins are playing above their heads and can't keep this up. The thing is, we've heard this logic before. Houston last year? Boston in 2004? Florida in 2003? The Angels in 2002? For that matter, most national analysists said there was no way the Twins would keep it up when they started their incessant winning back in June but they really haven't stopped yet.

It's ridiculous to count out a team thats playing with so much confidence and that has a lot of talent on it at the end of July. Yes, guys like Jason Tyner, Nick Punto, and others don't have a track record for what they are doing. But what difference does that make? Punto seems to be legit, carrying an 18-game hitting streak, and even if Tyner begins to slump, Torii Hunter could be back next Monday.

And the middle of the order? Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and yes Michael Cuddyer, are not playing over their heads. Their talent and minor league track records suggest this kind of play is entirely possible. Pitching-wise, there is no question about the next two months. Radke has settled into being reliable, Santana and Liriano are incredibly good (and there is no reason to think that will end anytime soon), the bullpen is phenomenal, and Carlos Silva probably shouldn't be allowed to start much longer.

If anything, the Twins have the advantage of getting Hunter back (almost like a trade) and having a streaking, talented minor league pitcher on the cusp in Matt Garza. If the Twins have Santana, Radke, Liriano, possibly Baker, and a hard-throwing righty the league has never seen, a lot goes in their favor. I'm of course not making any predictions. Anything can happen and all the teams the Twins are up against are filled with talent. I merely wish to point out that there isn't that much reason to think the Twins' play is more fluky than the play of Aaron Guiel in New York.

All in all, it's been pretty exciting to watch the team since the break and the series against Chicago was exhilirating. After an day off today, the Twins set up for a home series against Detroit. Lucky for us, struggling Detroit starters Zach Miner and Kenny Rogers (along with Jeremy Bonderman, who is doing great this year) will have to face off against the Liriano-Radke-Santana rotation everyone fears. I can't wait.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey guys!! Love your optimistic post, and I agree with the frustration with ESPN and everyone counting the Twins out. What do they know?? Anyway, I completely agree with every word of it!! Except one little thing (not to be picky) but I think Radke is going up against that gum-chewing freak Nate Robertson on Saturday!! I would rather it be Kenny Rogers myself!!!

Nick M. said...

Yes, your right about that. For some reason, I thought Rogers was on Sunday. Maybe they skipped their rotation or something, but the good news for the Twins is no Verlander. Although a Liriano-Verlander would be classic, the rookie is also on a tear.

Anonymous said...

That would be a classic, but it's probably a good thing we won't see him. Also, I did see Jim Armstrong, although not an ESPN analyst, pick the Twins to win the Wild Card on Around the Horn yesterday.

Jeff A said...

Let ESPN keep ignoring us. Given their analysts, if they start picking the Twins to win, I'll get worried.

Anonymous said...

Preach on, brother Nick!

Great posting! I loved when you commented on how Mauer, Cuddyer and Morneau are not playing above their heads. A lot of people don't look at minor league track record as any kind of indicator, but it has to play a role. I kept hearing how Morneau couldn't hit for average, but he did at every minor league level... Continued great work!

Seth,
www.SethSpeaks.net

Nick N. said...

Thanks as always for the kind words Seth. As you point out, minor league stats are much more important as a predictive tool than many people give credit for, and of course we would not be nearly as knowledgable about the Twins' minor league system if not for everything you do on your site.

Jeff, true that. Every time John Kruk says something negative about the Twins it makes me that much happier, because I'm pretty sure he's never been right about anything in his life.

p2 said...

Great job with the optimism. I am enjoying every minute of this great Twins run toward a championship.

hunterfan said...

if Tyner begins to slump, Torii Hunter could be back next Monday.

Hunter is a hole in the line-up and a rally killer except for a couple of weeks a year.

Nick N. said...

Hunter is a hole in the line-up and a rally killer except for a couple of weeks a year.

I don't know if that was sarcasm, since it seems bizarre that a person with the nickname "hunterfan" would speak so harshly of him. Whatever the case, I would agree with that to some degree but Hunter is about a league-average offensive player and probably the second-best power threat on the team behind Morneau. Tiny's production so far has been nice but as a .261/.299/.305 career hitter coming into this season it's tough to see him keeping this up for much longer.

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