Twins' run may be Gardenhire's finest
Team's surprising stretch drive a master stroke for skipper
KANSAS CITY -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is very familiar with being in pennant races where his team is the one doing the chasing.After all, it was what took place in 2006 when his Twins caught the Tigers on the final day of the season to earn their fourth American League Central title in five years. A remarkable feat when considering that it was the first time that season the club had been in first place. Last season, the Twins once again had to try to come from behind. A club that was considered to be in a rebuilding year after saying goodbye to stars like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana in the offseason made another late surge to force a one-game tiebreaker with the White Sox to determine the AL Central champion. But the Twins fell, suffering a 1-0 loss in the contest to prevent them from another pennant and a trip to the postseason. But while Gardenhire has helped guide his teams on unexpected runs in previous years, the Twins' current pennant race is perhaps the most surprising of any since he took over as manager in 2002. The Twins will enter the final week of the season sitting two games behind the Tigers and with a chance at another division title despite what seems to be an infirmary list of injuries. The club was without its All-Star catcher for the entire month of April due to Joe Mauer's lower back inflammation. By the middle of August, the Twins had lost three of the starters who began the year in their rotation -- Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano. The Twins' power-hitting third baseman, Joe Crede, was limited to just 90 games before season-ending back surgery and has not played a game in the field since Aug. 21. Yet no blow seemed as big as the club losing Justin Morneau due to a stress fracture in his lower back with about three weeks remaining in the season. At the time, many pundits questioned whether the Twins could stay in the division race without one of their biggest run producers, and cleanup hitter, in the lineup. And yet, they've continued to win. The Twins will enter their critical four-game series with the Tigers on Monday having won 11 of their past 13 contests, and with the opportunity to either be tied for the division lead with a series win or to hold a one-game lead with a series sweep. "Really, once you sit back and go back over the year, you probably will be kind of amazed," Gardenhire said of what his club has done. "It wasn't what we expected, with injuries and everything else that happened to our pitching staff. Players that we had a pretty good feeling about didn't work out. A lot of stuff happened. The tenacity of this team has been pretty good lately." So has the tenacity of their manager. Despite having to turn to rookie pitchers in the rotation down the stretch and having to make moves such as shifting his primary right fielder, Michael Cuddyer, to first base due to injury, Gardenhire once again has found a way to keep his club in the hunt. But the question everyone seems to ask is: How does he keep doing it? If the Twins can find a way to beat out the Tigers for the AL Central title during this final week, it will mark the fifth division title for Gardenhire in his eight years as manager. It's an impressive record by any standards, yet Gardenhire shrugs off most of the credit for his success. After capturing career win No. 700 earlier this week in Chicago, he said that it was really a testament to his coaching staff and the players who have occupied the clubhouse during his tenure. But others are quick to heap praise on Gardenhire, especially when it comes to what he's done this year. "I think he should be Manager of the Year," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He should. That guy was fighting with not too much ammunition. He did a tremendous job with that ballclub, day in and day out, to put the club in that position. That's amazing. It's something where he should feel proud." For Gardenhire, this season has been about adapting. When the club's plans at second base with Alexi Casilla fell through early in the year, he found other ways to fill the hole by rotating bench players. Even though the bullpen was short on help for much of the season, he found ways not to overtax the relievers who were having success. He admits that it's likely been the most frustrating season he's had as a manager. The Twins toiled around the .500 mark for the majority of the season, not going more than three games over the mark until their hot streak over the past two weeks. "The challenge was to keep the players focused on the big picture," Gardenhire said. "We went so long battling around that .500 and every time you would get the good feeling then you'd play a couple games in a row where you think, 'Here we are again.' So it was just a constant reminder to keep playing, and maybe we'll get on a run. That's what we were hoping." The Twins finally did get that run, and it's pushed them right back into this division race yet again. While it's been a roller-coaster ride to get to this point for the Twins, Gardenhire said it's all worth it -- whether his club winds up winning it all or not. Teams play to be in these kinds of situations that his club finds itself in right now, he said. But while every title won is memorable, he admits that this one might end up even more special than the others. "This one would definitely, definitely rank right up there, because we've been .500 the whole year and we've really battled with injuries and everything else," Gardenhire said. "To see that we're still staying after it this late is very impressive." Gardenhire is not the only one who has been impressed by his team's run. So, too, is the manager of the team his club is chasing, although unlike most, Tigers skipper Jim Leyland isn't stunned to see the Twins chasing Detroit yet again. "Their manager's a cool customer, so it doesn't really surprise," Leyland said. "If I said I wasn't surprised that they'd won 11 out of 13, I'd be lying. But it doesn't surprise me that they're doing well. They're right there every year. They always show up. They're a very impressive organization. I don't think they've really gotten the credit they deserve."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.