Monday, October 05, 2009

Unreal

Back on September 9, with the Twins sitting 6 1/2 games out of first place with just 24 left to play, I proclaimed that the time had come "for any realist to stick a fork in these 2009 Minnesota Twins."

Kudos to all the non-realists who maintained their faith.

In the four weeks since I wrote that pseudo-eulogy of the Twins season, the team has gone on an extremely impressive run, winning 17 of the final 24 games on their regular-season schedule to improve their record to 86-76. An impressive victory over the Royals on Saturday night, in conjunction with a Tigers loss to the White Sox, gave the Twins a share of first place in the AL Central for the first time since May 14. With both the Twins and Tigers winning yesterday, the two finish the 162-game season with identical records and now -- for the second straight year -- the Twins will participate in a single-game playoff to determine the division winner.

For many reasons, the Twins' late-season surge to the top of the division has been incredible. Multiple injuries to the starting pitching corps forced them to cycle through nearly their entire Triple-A rotation in a desperate attempt to find serviceable innings. When it was announced on September 14 that Justin Morneau had a fracture in his back that would force him to miss the remainder of the season, any dim playoff hopes for the Twins -- who were presently 5 1/2 games back with a .500 record -- seemingly evaporated. Instead, Michael Cuddyer took over at first and began punishing the ball as the Twins won nine of their next 10 contests to move back within a couple games of the division lead. Suddenly, a formerly unthinkable comeback seemed like a real possibility.

The Twins were still within two games of the Tigers when they headed to Detroit for a pivotal four-game series late in September. The prevailing wisdom was that the Twins needed to win at least three of the four games in order to have a realistic shot at catching the Tigers. So after the Twins dropped the second game of the series, most fans and analysts understandably were writing them off. Aaron Gleeman posted a column titled "The End." The Twins had seemingly missed their chance. After all, no team in baseball history had ever overcome a three-game deficit with only four games left to play.

But the Twins did what they needed to do. They won all four of their remaining games while the Tigers dropped two of three to the White Sox this weekend, and now here we are.

For all the excitement and enthusiasm that has been created locally about the Twins' great run of late-season play, the bigger story here is the epic collapse that the Detroit Tigers have experienced. The Twins have been playing well, but it's not like they've gone on a 2007 Rockies type of September streak. They needed some help from the Tigers, and they got it. Detroit has failed to take advantage of a relatively soft late-season schedule, losing 15 of their past 26 games and going 1-5 against the last-place Royals during that span. When the Tigers came home for their final series of the season with a two-game lead in the division and a chance to bury the Twins, they lost the first two games against a sub-.500 White Sox team that had nothing meaningful to play for while being outscored 13-1. While a fan in Minnesota might be tempted to call this late-season turn of events magical or miraculous, fans in Mo-Town doubtlessly have some other choice words to describe the situation.

Regardless, the view from here in Minneapolis is pretty sweet. The Twins came home for what was anticipated to be their final series in the Metrodome, and they swept the Royals with a high-powered offensive attack while the White Sox took care of business against the Tigers and now the two teams will play one last game to settle matters. The Twins have all the momentum in the world and -- thanks to a rule change put into effect just this year -- they'll be playing the game in front of 50,000-plus fans on their home field.

The reality is that these Twins are a flawed team, one that underperformed throughout much the season and would be hugely over-matched in a playoff series against the Yankees. The reality is that their shot at a playoff berth can be credited as much to the lackluster effort put forth by the Tigers late in the season as it can to their own stellar play. The reality is that, despite the huge disparity in momentum, the Twins and Tigers are fairly equally matched and tomorrow night's tilt could easily go either way.

But sometimes reality is no fun. These Twins, who most had left for dead weeks ago, are making a late charge and playing meaningful baseball here in October as they prepare to close down the stadium where they have captured two World Championships over the past 22 years. This season has the feeling of a storybook, and frankly I'm not ready to see the ending yet.

6 comments:

Louie said...

I guess I'm a non-realist.

John said...

I think you can say that the Twins are the favorites now. While in the abstract the teams are evenly matched, this is a single game. For that, recent performance seems the most valuable consideration. Consider this:
http://sportsphd.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/one-game-playoffs/
The hot team always wins. I think the Twins have a great shot

David said...

If there's one thing we should have learned from this past month, it's to remove the word "always" from your vocabulary. The team in front "always" wins if they're ahead by 3 games with 4 to play.

I like our chances though. Gardy has the Twins playing over their heads, especially on offense. These guys do not think they can be stopped. What I say is, if the Twins get past Detroit, bring 'em on!

Baseball In-Depth said...

This was one of the best late season races I've seen. I fully expect a great playoff game on Tuesday. I am sure the Yankees will be heavily favored over either team, with their vastly better record and ability to have rested their players.

I do not think the Tigers would have a chance, but the Twins are riding such a high, a major upset would not surprise me at all.

Nick N. said...

I do not think the Tigers would have a chance, but the Twins are riding such a high, a major upset would not surprise me at all.

Indeed. The 2007 Rockies were referenced in this post, and I think that if the Twins get past the Tigers, that Rockies team will serve as a great example of what a white-hot team can do in the playoffs.

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