Resilience rewarded for Twins, A's
Late rampages erased slow starts to set up unlikely ALDS
Not long ago, the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins were next to last in their respective division races and apparently going nowhere.
The Twins were 25-33 and 11 1/2 games out in the American League Central on June 7. A few days earlier, the A's were five games back in the AL West with a record of 23-29.
But the two teams turned things around in a massive way. The Twins posted the best record in baseball the rest of the way, going 71-33 to clinch the division title on the final day of the regular season, while the A's posted a 70-40 record during their final 110 games to take the AL West.
Now, these two improbable champions will meet in the American League Division Series beginning on Tuesday at the Metrodome.
Oakland will start All-Star lefty Barry Zito, while the Twins will send 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana to the mound for Game 1 in the best-of-five series.
"It's been an unbelievable year," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'm extremely proud of these guys. We were down early, but we kept after it and now we're in the playoffs. Not many people gave us much of a chance of getting this far."
The Twins turned things around, thanks to AL batting champion Joe Mauer, slugging first baseman Justin Morneau, center fielder Torii Hunter and Santana, a heavy favorite to win the Cy Young Award again this year. The Twins are the hottest team in baseball, and they will have home-field advantage in the first round.
Oakland was picked by some to win the AL West, but after losing players like Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, Milton Bradley, Mark Ellis, Joe Kennedy, Justin Duchscherer, Esteban Loaiza, Mark Ellis and Huston Street to the disabled list for more than 550 games, the A's weren't expected to make it this far.
Both teams overcame the odds to put together impressive seasons and make this improbable pairing a reality.
"We played through the obstacles that come to all teams," Oakland manager Ken Macha said. "When you lose guys [to injury], somebody has to step up and do the job if you're going to be successful."
Oakland, which is making its first postseason appearance since 2003, hasn't won a playoff series since 1990, when the Tony La Russa-managed A's made it to the World Series and were swept by the Cincinnati Reds. Nine times from 2000-03, the A's needed one victory to advance to the ALCS, yet the team went 0-for-9 in those games.
Zito and right-handers Dan Haren and Joe Blanton combined for 46 victories and 417 strikeouts this season. Veteran Esteban Loaiza won 11 games, and the promising youngster Harden, just off the disabled list, is 4-0 with a 3.35 ERA. In his last two starts, Harden was exceptional, and he appears ready to display his impressive array of pitches on the postseason stage.
Minnesota's bullpen, led by closer Joe Nathan, is one of the best in baseball.
Like the Twins, the A's starters are backed by a deep group of quality relievers, including Street (37 saves), Duchscherer, Kiko Calero, Chad Gaudin, Brad Halsey and Joe Kennedy. Starter Kirk Saarloos can sometimes give the A's another option out of the bullpen.
The last time the two teams met in the postseason was in the 2002 ALDS. The Twins won the series, 3-2.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.