It's been a pretty unbelievable ride. At the end of April, things looked absolutely dismal for the Minnesota Twins. They were below .500, the Tigers and White Sox were both streaking to great starts, and things were not pretty. The off-season acquisitions of Tony Batista and Rondell White didn't look so good and the fact that Juan Castro was starting regularly at short was the clearest mistake any baseball observer could ever see.
Fast-foward to last night. The Twins blew out the Royals to lock up a playoff spot and eliminate the defending World Champs. The Twins also moved within one game of idle Detroit for the division. Torii Hunter knocked out his 30th home run, giving the Twins two 30+ HR guys in the same season after nearly 20 years without a single one. Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer both have broken the 100 RBI mark, and Hunter still might. Morneau continues to cement himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, with a .324/.380/.570 line with 34 home runs and 129 RBI. Joe Mauer has a very good chance at winning the batting title, a first ever for an AL catcher. Boof Bonser has emerged as a strong pitcher, Matt Garza is contributing, and Pat Neshek is looking nasty in the pen.
How many of these things could we have predicted? Not too many. Before the season, it seemed optimistic to predict that Morneau would hit .270 and drive in 100 runs, or to guess that Mauer would bat over .310. It seemed like wishful thinking to guess that Francisco Liriano would outpitch not only every other rookie in the league, but every other pitcher period. It would have been simply ridiculous to assert that Nick Punto would play everyday and bat .300 and that Jason Bartlett, who looked sloppy in the field and at times clueless at the plate last season, would start 93 straight games while hitting .315 and developing into one of the league's most spectacular defensive shortstops. You certainly would have surprised some people if you said Boof Bonser would have a significant impact on the Twins' chances.
But in one night, just about the whole season was summed up. Bonser pitched very well against Kansas City, going 6 2/3 innings and giving up just one run while walking two and striking out five. As usual, the Twins bullpen was lights out, represented by Dennys Reyes (another wholly unpredictable pitcher who emerged for a huge contribution), Neshek, and the great Joe Nathan. Of course, shutting down Kansas City isn't a huge victory, but their offense has been better of late and the fact that Bonser now has a 4.15 ERA is more than impressive.
If there was any question, it has now been answered: Bonser is definitely the number two starter for the playoffs behind Johan Santana. Even if Brad Radke's return on Thursday is not legitimate (and the guess here is that it is more of an honorary send-off in front of the home crowd), there is no way the Twins should consider Carlos Silva as one of their three playoff starters at all. Matt Garza is a superior option and so is Radke if he can pitch at all.
The offense came up big last night as well. Hunter, as mentioned before, hit #30, smoking a ball to center field to drive in his 94th and 95th runs in the seventh inning. Before the year started, there wasn't much to expect from Hunter other than good defense, around 25 homers, and a .270 average. After getting hurt and seeing his defense suffer, many in the blogsphere, including this site, started to believe that there was no way the Twins should pick up Hunter's $12 million option for 2007.
Although as a 32-year old center fielder, it may still be questionable, Hunter has shown with his great play during this crucial stretch that he's worth keeping around for at least another year. His defense, including a great play last night, has been much better of late and a .280/.340/.495 line on the season is very good. But a .333 average with 9 HR and 26 RBI in September, just when the team looked to be tailing off a bit, has been on of the biggest contributions in the route to the playoffs for the Twins. Morneau is definitely the offensive MVP, but Hunter has been huge down the strech and having two guys with 30 home runs is extremely refreshing for a franchise that has sorely lacked legitimate power hitters for so long.
There are many statistical ways to discuss all these great accomplishments, but nothing explains it better than the feeling of being a Twins fan right now. This season has been up and down, but since the start of June, is has been the most enjoyable time for me as a Twins fan that I can remember since winning the World Series in 1991. Being six years old at the time, it's not exactly a perfect memory, but it was still exciting as a kid to see Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris have some of the greatest games in World Series history.
At this point, it's once again easy to get down on the Twins and suggest that they have no chance in the playoffs, especially with the daunting Yankees in their way. Heck, Gary Gilette does it practically daily at ESPN, though he'll likely be upset to hear another Twin fan complain. However, as everyone who has observed the playoffs in recent years knows, Wild Card teams can do some damage (Angels, Marlins, Red Sox were WS winners) because they often come into the playoffs with a lot more momentum than teams like the Yankees or Mets, who haven't had much to play for in September. (See last night's Mets game. They didn't even look like they were trying at all.)
Of course, the Twins still do have a very realistic chance to overtake the Tigers and win the division, but making up two games with only six left to play is a fairly tall order.
Whether it's against the Athletics or against the Yankees, and whether it's at home or away, the Twins have a great chance to advancee past the the first round of the playoffs. Now that they are in, I just can't wait to sit down and enjoy this talented, exciting young team play in October.
Congratulations, Twinkies. You've earned it.