Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's a Clinch!

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.

11 comments:

the frenchman said...

I really can't believe we actually made it. Its been an unbelievable year. I've been thinking (probably not the only one) that it might be in our best interest to not win the division since we might have a better shot at taking out the yankees in a 5 game series with johan going twice. Thoughts?

Nick M. said...

I don't know about that. The divisional title means homefield advantage, which every Twins fan knows is big, and this team matches up a lot better against the A's.

My point is not that we have a great chance against the Yankees, but that we should by no means write this team off just because they are playing the Yankees.

Remember, the Yankees have a sinkerballer who strikes out no one (Wang, and we know what that can lead to...), a old ace who has a struggled down the strech and who hasn't been too great against the Twins recently (Mussina), and one who has been bad all year (Johnson). Their starters don't intimidate me at all, but the hitters is really the question.

Can Boof, Garza, Neshek, Nathan, Reyes, and all the others shut down the Yanks offense? As good as they've been, it is very hard to say. The As, on the other hand, have Frank Thomas and very little else. That team has been sadly helped, much the way we were years ago, by a not-so-strong division.

Anonymous said...

What is the tiebreaker situation if the Twins and Tigers finish the season with the same record? I don't think that there is a one game playoff since they are both in the playoffs anyway... head to head record? Division record?

dan said...

Twins have to finish with a better record than Tigers to win division as they determine that by head to head which Detroit has the edge on.

What I don't know is lets say the Twins beat out the Tigers, but tie for the best record in the league with the Yankees. They are 3-3 head to head.

I know it appears obvious that Bonser is the # 2 starter, I'm just crossing my fingers and hope that surely Gardy realizes that as well. Silva is # 4 on the playoff depth starter chart, and like you said, number 5 if Radke can go.

Nick M. said...

I agree with you there Dan. The Gardy factor always has me on edge. Despite the fact this team has done so well, I sometimes wonder how much it actually has to do with him. There is a chance he'll choose Silva and give some ridiculous "he's a veteran" bs to justify it. If that happens, I'll be a lot less confident about the playoffs.

One reason: Say Santana pitches a great Game one against the Yanks and the Twins win. If Silva comes in and does his thing, that is, gives up six home runs to the Yankees, he'll destroy all that momentum. In the playoffs, it can be awful tough to shake off those kind of loses.

Nick N. said...

Remember, the Yankees have a sinkerballer who strikes out no one (Wang, and we know what that can lead to...), a old ace who has a struggled down the strech and who hasn't been too great against the Twins recently (Mussina), and one who has been bad all year (Johnson). Their starters don't intimidate me at all, but the hitters is really the question.

As much as people tend to overrate Yankees' players, you're underrating a couple of them here. Putting Wang in the same category as Silva, as you seem to imply here, is totally unfair. Wang has had a very solid year and will probably finish top three in the Cy Young voting while Silva is one of the worst pitchers in the league. As for Mussina, I'm not sure I'd say he's "struggled down the stretch." He hasn't pitched as well in the second half, to be sure, but he's pitched fairly well in September. As for Johnson, yeah he has not pitched well this year but he is a veteran with playoff experience so who knows what he'll do in October.

MNPundit said...

If the Twins were to somehow beat the Yankees in the playoffs in the first round that would be such a cathartic storied victory that we would become INVINCIBLE. No other team could concievably stop us--not even the Mets.

John said...

Maybe I'm off base to think this, but when Nick M. said,

"the Yankees have a sinkerballer who strikes out no one (Wang, and we know what that can lead to...),"

the first thing I thought of was Castillo, Punto, Mauer, and Hunter grounding into rally killing double plays all game long.

Nick M. said...

Fair enough. I just wanted to point out that there are reasons for some hope. My point with Wang isn't that he is Silva or that he is having a bad year, but sinkerballers who strikeout hardly anyone can be successful for a small amount of time, but almost always hit the downslope faster than other pitchers. But, we may just as well ground into five rally-killing DPs.

As for Mussina, your right to say he hasn't been bad in September. Two things I see though is that he is has been battling injuries and he hasn't had a few ugly games against the Twins in recent memory.

Johnson has always pitched well against us, but he has looked awfully mortal. I am merely looking at a few reasons for hope, as pitching is a much weaker area for the Yankees than hitting.

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