As the weeks began to wind down, the 2009 Twins season looked like a lost cause. The Tigers were playing better ball and starting to pull away. Justin Morneau, a crucial force in the middle of the Twins lineup for most of the season, had struggled through a terribly unproductive August before having his season shut down in early September due to a back injury. Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, a trio of starters that had comprised three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation, had all fallen out of the starting five due to injury problems. They've been replaced by a waiver trade pick-up who held a 5.37 ERA at the time he was acquired and a pair of middling prospects in Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship who had posted only mediocre numbers against Triple-A batters and had no experience starting the major leagues.
Morneau's injury has forced Michael Cuddyer into first base duty, and he has played alongside a Twins infield that has seemingly come to resemble a Triple-A unit. At third base is Matt Tolbert, a light-hitting utility man who was demoted back in July with a 497 OPS. At shortstop is the rapidly aging Orlando Cabrera, a deadline acquisition who -- entering last night's game -- had posted a .281 on-base percentage in the No. 2 spot since coming over to the Twins. At second base is Nick Punto, whose numbers are barely better than the disastrous ones he posted in his historically atrocious 2007 campaign.
Yet, through it all, the Twins have battled their way back into spitting distance of first place in the AL Central. There are plenty of reasons that one can point to for this return to contention that don't necessarily have to do with the Twins playing spectacular baseball. The first-place Tigers have imploded, dropping nine of their past 14 games -- including five of six against the hapless Royals. And the Twins haven't exactly faced a brutally difficult schedule. But this team certainly deserves credit for taking advantage of the poor play of the Tigers and their own weak schedule as they've made a completely unexpected late-season push and come with in just a 2 1/2 games of first place.
Make no mistake about it: the Twins still have a very steep uphill climb. Eight of their final 11 games come on the road -- where they've not played their best ball this year -- and winning that four-game series in Detroit next week is going to be awfully tough. But with over half their remaining games coming against arguably the worst team in the league and with four left against the team sitting in front of them, the Twins truly do have a shot. Given that most people (including myself) were understandably eulogizing the '09 Twins weeks ago, that's pretty awesome.
These final couple weeks should be interesting. Buckle in.
Here are a few other notes and links:
* With only three games remaining in the House That Puck Built, we're starting to see several Metrodome memorials pop up. Chris Jaffe over at The Hardball Times wrote up a list of the greatest games in Metrodome history.
* Minnesota Public Radio is providing fans with the opportunity to share their own favorite Metrodome memories. Here's an email I received yesterday from MPR's Molly Bloom that she asked me to share with my readers:
After 28 years, the Twins are moving on from the Metrodome to greener pastures made of real grass. In commemoration of their last season at the Dome, MPR News is collecting memories of baseball at the Dome to feature on our Morning Edition program. We want to hear your funniest, strangest or simply most memorable moments at the Dome – whether on the field or in the stands. Share your story with us here: http://tinyurl.com/mprdome. Please contact Molly Bloom at mbloom [at] mpr [dot] org with any questions. We look forward to hearing from you!
* Finally, make sure to check out More Hardball's write-up comparing Joe Mauer to the best catchers of all time.