Never-say-die Twins ready for playoffs
Underdogs from the North have overcome many obstacles
MINNEAPOLIS -- Trailing in the American League Central division by as many as 12 1/2 games back in May, the Twins' hopes of making a return to the playoffs this season seemed to already have disappeared.Many had written the club off for dead at the time, and with the team floundering and doing everything in its power to just remain close to the .500 mark, that notion didn't seem like a far reach. But there was something about the chemistry and grit of the Twins that instead turned the 2006 season into what seems to be one of destiny. Rather than writing off the season as another missed opportunity, the Twins put together one of the most impressive runs in a long time to earn the American League Central Division title and become one of the most talked about stories in all of baseball. "It's been a phenomenal four months," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Looking back on it, you'd never thought we'd be able to get to this spot when we finished up the month of May. But that's why having 162 games means so much in baseball. Over 162 games, you pretty much know that the good teams end up being resilient in the end." Resilient might be the only way to describe the Twins this season. Heading into the 2006 season, the club felt strongly about its chances to make a run in what was thought to be a difficult AL Central division. Even with the club coming off a season of unrealized expectations and disappointments, there was a strong sense that this would be the year to turn it all around. With a strong pitching rotation and plenty of young bats that looked to be on the verge of a breakout, it seemed like things were falling into place. Some new additions were also brought to shore up some of the holes that the club had in 2005, when the club missed the postseason for the first time in four years. Tony Batista was signed to be the third baseman, the Twins added Ruben Sierra and Rondell White for their power bats, and added Luis Castillo to solidify the defense in the middle infield. But things didn't exactly go as planned. The Twins' rotation struggled to get things going early, and the bats weren't exactly consistent, either. Even the Twins' trademark strong defense was missing for much of the early part of the season. It led to quite a few trying times, including a sweep in a series at Detroit at the end of April when the Twins were outscored 33-1 over three games. "We were all like, 'Geez, what's going on?'" catcher Joe Mauer said. "That was one of the most frustrating times for us." Times wouldn't get easier throughout May, as the team fought through tough periods before heading on a West Coast swing at the end of the month and into the start of June. It was then that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire acknowledged that some things would have to be done. "We realized that this wasn't working," Gardenhire said. "We weren't a fun ballclub to watch at the time." The changes included getting rid of Batista, Sierra and fill-in shortstop Juan Castro. The Twins then brought up shortstop Jason Bartlett from Triple-A Rochester and moved Nick Punto permanently to third base. At the time it seemed like the solutions would at least work for the short term, but the changes in athleticism also signaled a bit of renewal.
Then came the streak that even the players themselves couldn't believe. Starting with a win in the final game of the road trip on June 8, the Twins put together a run in which they won 21 of their next 23 games. It included an impressive stretch in Interleague Play as the team went 16-2.This period of time also marked the emergence of Justin Morneau as the power bat that the club had been seeking, and Mauer started on a tear at the plate that put him at the top of the AL batting title chase for the rest of the season.
Home couldn't have been any sweeter for the Twins this season, and the hope is for that to continue right on into the playoffs. The Metrodome isn't a ballpark that often receives rave reviews from even the home team, but it's one that helped earn Minnesota plenty of victories this season as it recorded a Major League-best 52-25 home record in 2006.
The fieldturf inside the dome can play havoc on visiting teams, especially those that haven't spent much time playing on the surface. The Twins are often credited with using the turf to their advantage by using their speed to get a few more infield hits than other clubs. With a short right-field porch, left-handed hitters definitely have an advantage in the park. The right-field baggie can also take some getting used to, as balls can often take weird bounces and outfielders can be made to look a little silly.
With sellout crowds expected for the entire division series, there might not be a louder place to play in all of baseball. The home of the original homer hanky, the sight of over 45,000 white handkerchiefs waving in the stands can also be quite intimidating.
Still, the division and a spot in the playoffs seemed very far from reach, as the Twins picked up just a half-game on the Tigers by the All-Star break to dwindle their deficit to 11 games. Certainly, there didn't seem to be a feeling that the club would be spraying bottles of champagne in September to mark their return to the postseason."If anyone here says they did, they're lying," Punto said. But while there wasn't much hope, the Twins held on to the chemistry within the clubhouse that had been there since the start of Spring Training. Despite going through such a rough first two months, there was a looseness in the clubhouse that allowed the team to keep faith that something might happen to allow the wins to start coming. "It would have been easy for us to fall apart and pack it in during some of the rough times," closer Joe Nathan said. "But because we did still enjoy working hard together as a team, that's what got us back in this thing. We never gave up as a group and we knew we could still win some games together. Basically we just had fun doing it." Putting together such a prolonged winning streak would have been enough to draw admiration for this Twins club. But it was the other factors that the club had to overcome within the streak that has made this season seem just so unbelievable. The team seemed to suffer through its share of punches during the stretch -- from losing three of its four outfielders at one point to injury; to watching rookie All-Star pitcher Francisco Liriano, who won 12 games for the club, exit the rotation due to elbow pain; to even losing the man the team called its heart, when Brad Radke was sidelined with a stress fracture in his right shoulder socket after pitching most of the year through the pain. While every blow was written to be the final one for the club -- somehow, someway, the wins just kept on coming. "I'm constantly amazed at this team," backup catcher Mike Redmond said. "It seems like every night, it's a different guy that steps up for us." "This is the best ballclub I've been on," Torii Hunter added. "To be down 12 games and come back to earn a spot in the playoffs -- that's hard to do. We proved a lot of people wrong." And the club doesn't seem to be done proving people wrong just yet. There are still plenty of questions about the ability of the Twins' young, inexperienced pitchers to carry them through a playoff run, and whether the club can compete with a team like the Yankees, which has seen its share of success in the postseason. But for a team that has defied expectations all season long, it doesn't seem a surprise that the Twins aren't about to listen to the experts this time either. "I think this team is just crazy enough to do it all," Redmond said with a laugh. "It's just crazy enough to win the World Series."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.