With a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays, the Twins' 2010 regular season came to a close yesterday. Their final record: 94-68, good enough to clinch home field advantage for the ALDS, which will -- for the fourth time in eight years -- pit the hometown nine against the New York Yankees.
The Twins, of course, have a rather sordid history with the Yankees in October. In each of the teams' three postseason meetings, the Bronx Bombers have moved on with relative ease. This, coupled with the Twins' hideous regular-season record against New York over the past decade, has caused some fans to wonder whether Ron Gardenhire has the mettle to lead his team to victory against baseball's most legendary club.
I find the criticisms of Gardenhire based on his lack of postseason success to be shallow, at best. In no way does a 6-18 record in a tiny 24-game sample outweigh the manager's .550 record in almost 1,500 regular-season games. It's not as if he manages differently in the playoffs than he does otherwise.
The only time during Gardenhire's tenure that the Twins have lost a series in which they were clearly favored was against the A's in 2006. In that instance, the league's hottest team completely shut down offensively, scoring no more than three runs in any of the series' three-games despite holding home field advantage. Tough to blame that on the manager, in my opinion.
Outside of that series, Gardenhire's postseason history since 2002 -- when he pushed the Twins to the ALCS in his first season at the helm -- consists of three losses to Yankees teams that were vastly superior. To review:
2009: Yankees 3, Twins 0.
Frankly, Gardenhire deserves credit for keeping the Twins in this series at all. It was about as lopsided a match-up as you can get in October. The Yankees, winners of an MLB-high 103 games during the regular season who would go on to win the World Series, had the opportunity to rest up before welcoming an exhausted and undermanned Twins team to New York in Game 1.
Circumstances forced the Twins to throw rookie Brian Duensing against CC Sabathia in Game 1, a contest that no one could have expected the Twins to win. In Game 2, the Twins held a two-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth before Alex Rodriguez blasted a game-tying two-run shot off one of the league's most reliable closers. The game went to extra innings, Phil Cuzzi blew a call, and Mark Teixeira hit a walk-off homer. In Game 3, Andy Pettitte out-dueled Carl Pavano and the Twins' offense once again shut down as the Yankees completed their sweep.
Gardenhire's fault? Good luck making that case.
2004: Yankees 3, Twins 1.
Comparing this year's club to the 2004 team in any way is a slippery slope, since the two have almost nothing in common. But since we're discussing the myth that Gardenhire somehow lets up against the Yankees in the playoffs, we'll take a look at what went down.
The scenario was similar to last year; the Yankees had won an AL-high 101 games during the regular season to earn home field advantage in the first round. In Game 1, Cy Young winner Johan Santana tossed an absolute gem in Yankee Stadium, notching seven scoreless innings as the Twins went on to win 2-0. Gardenhire's team nearly took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series by stealing Game 2, but an unfortunate hop turned Corey Koskie's potential go-ahead hit in the eighth into a game-tying ground-rule double and the Twins were ultimately thwarted in the 12th inning. The Yankees beat up on Carlos Silva in Game 3 and won another tightly contested extra-inning thriller in Game 4 to take the series.
Can Koskie's bad bounce and a couple tough extra-inning losses against a team whose payroll was $130 million higher really be blamed on the manager? If you say so...
2003: Yankees 3, Twins 1.
Yet another series opened in Yankee Stadium, against a New York team that finished with the AL's best record, 101-61. The Twins won the first game 3-1 behind a brilliant collaborative effort between Santana and the bullpen. They scored only one run apiece in the next three games and, sure enough, lost them all. You can blame Gardenhire for the lineup's failures in these games if you want, or you can blame the fact that he was managing a team with serious payroll restrictions that featured Matt LeCroy as its DH and cleanup hitter.
The lineups have changed dramatically between these three teams, which is why they shouldn't be considered all that seriously when assessing the Twins' chances this year, but a few things have remained constant. The Yankees have been the best team in the American League, with 100+ wins, and have held home field advantage. The Twins have worked on restricted budgets, owned the worst record of any qualifying playoff team, and been horribly over-matched in almost every phase of the game.
None of those things are true this year. The Yankees won one more game than the Twins in the regular season, but they enter the postseason as wild card rather than AL East champ and for the first time will be forced to come to Minnesota to open a playoff series.
Where the Twins last year threw out an unknown and untested rookie to start Game 1, this year they'll rock one of the game's best starters. Where last year's lineup featured Brendan Harris as starting DH, Nick Punto as starting second baseman and Matt Tolbert as starting third baseman, this year the Twins will roll out Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson and sensational rookie Danny Valencia. J.J. Hardy, the No. 9 hitter for the 2010 Twins, posted a better OPS this year than four members of last year's ALDS Game 1 lineup did in '09 -- including the guy manning the two-hole. Among all those players I just mentioned -- Thome, Hudson, Valencia, Hardy -- none could be accused of having any sort of mental block when it comes to the Yankees.
I realize that this post will sound to some like another lame defense of Gardenhire from a guy who's expended all too much energy on the subject, but let's be clear: the Twins have been clear underdogs each of the three times they've faced the Yankees in a playoff series over the past seven years. It'd be nice if Gardy could have come out on top once, but it hardly could have been expected.
Things are different this year. As Bonnes noted last week, these Yanks are far more vulnerable than past iterations, and this time they'll have to come into Target Field to open the series. The Twins will arguably have a pitching advantage in every game, and even without Justin Morneau this lineup packs far more punch than any we've seen in any of the aforementioned series.
Hold the Twins' past postseason failures against them all you want. But don't make the mistake of thinking this year's situation bears any real resemblance to them. And don't act like the manager who's brought them here for a sixth time in nine years is a liability.