Saturday, September 25, 2010

Minnesota Twins Win Their Sixth Division Title in Nine Years

I have been blessed to witness the Minnesota Twins win 2 World Championships (1987 & 1991). Watching those wins provide me with an amazing feeling that cannot truly be described. I have talked to several younger folks who are now rabid Twins fans and are too young or were not even around to see the Twins win the World Series 1991. These folks want a chance to experience what I did in 1987 and 1991. Thanks to the Twins posting the best second half record (42-15) in baseball this season, these folks have another chance to get their wish as the Twins have won their sixth division title in nine years.

This Twins team had high expectations entering the season, and so far they have lived up to them. This has been an impressive season for many reasons. The Twins lost their All-Star closer Joe Nathan even before the season began. At the halfway point of the season, All-Star 1st baseman Justin Morneau, who was having a MVP worthy season, endured a concussion and has not played since. Three fourths of the Twins opening days starting rotation (Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey) have been injured and /or wildly inconsistent. The Twins 3rd base platoon of Nick Punto and Brendan Harris imploded with Harris being demoted and Punto spending more time injured than healthy.

Add to those problems the fact that suppose lineup stalwarts centerfielder Denard Span and designated hitter / outfielder Jason Kubel have had subpar seasons offensively, and this division title looks even more impressive.

How did they Twins overcome these obstacles to achieve success? A group of unexpected contributors emerged, and the team’s MVP decided to kick it into high gear.

Entering the season Francisco Liriano was the team’s fifth starter, and his future was in doubt. Today Liriano has become the team’s ace, and will start game 1 of the playoffs. Liriano is finally recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had late in 2006 and it shows. Liriano’s emergence gives the Twins a legitimate pitching ace and hope for a deep playoff run.

Entering the season Delmon Young was considered a bust as player. On opening night he homer then in July he almost singled handily carried the Twins offense. Young has achieved career highs in home runs (18) and RBIs (105), and shown some actual personality. Young is still a work in progress, especially on defense, but he has finally emerged as a player and in the process helped the Twins into first place.

Brian Duensing entered the season in the bullpen. He soon became the team’s most reliable reliever; then Nick Blackburn imploded and Duensing was forced back into the rotation and promptly went 7-1 with an ERA of 2.43 in 11 starts. Duensing won’t be going back to the bullpen instead he will be starting game 3 of the playoffs with a spot in next season rotation already reserved for him.

Reliever Jesse Crain entered the season under a death watch. Most fans expected the option on Crain’s contract for 2010 would not be picked up – it was. After a rough first half of the season, Crain looked to be on the verge of being released. At the Twins autograph party in June I found fan after fan who could not stand the name Jesse Crain. Then after the all-star break something clicked, and Crain became the team’s indispensable setup man and arguably their most important reliever. Crain got the Twins out of jam after jam and has become so loved by Twins fans that many are saying Crain should be considered the Twins MVP.

Many Twins fans were surprised that the Twins signed designated hitter Jim Thome in the off-season. Fans wondered what the team would do with Thome when we already had a good designated hitter in Jason Kubel. Then Justin Morneau was injured, Michael Cuddyer had to take over at 1st, Jason Kubel had to play right field, and Jim Thome took over at DH. Despite limited playing time, Thome now leads the team in home runs with 25. His walk off home run against the White Soxs in the bottom of the 10th on August 17th was the turning point in the Twins season and will go down as one of the great moments in Twins history. No one is wondering anymore why Jim Thome was signed last off-season, they are only hoping he will come back next season.

Entering the season Carl Pavano was considered one of the biggest busts in free agent history. After a couple of good years in Florida, Pavano signed a large free agent contract with the New York Yankees. His four years with the Yankees were pathetic, and Yankee fans still sheath with anger at the mere mention of Pavano’s name. Pavano started last year in Cleveland and was traded to the Twins in the second half of the 2009 season. He pitched admirably, and was offered a 1 year contract for 2010. After exploring free agency and finding no one really interested, Pavano took the Twins 1 year offer. All Pavano has done this year is lead the Twins in wins (17) and innings pitched (210). In era where pitchers rarely pitch complete games, Pavano has 7 with many of them coming at crucial times when the Twins bullpen needed a rest. It is safe to say Pavano has been anything by a bust in Minnesota.

Danny Valencia was supposed to be the future at 3rd base. At least that was what we heard for most 2009. Then when the September call ups in 2009 were announced, Valencia was not among them. The Twins said he was not ready. In spring training this year Valencia was cut early on. His performance in the minors was ordinary, and it looked like he was no longer the future at 3rd. Then the Twins needed someone to play 3rd base and Valencia was the only warm body available. Like Denard Span in 2008, Valencia came up and played so well the Twins could not send him back down. To date Valencia is hitting .328 with an OPS + of 121. Valencia is no longer the future at 3rd, he is the present.

In the end though, the Twins are Joe Mauer’s team. Entering this season Mauer was the reigning American League MVP and had just signed a $184 million contract extension making him a Twin for life. Mauer, the Twins best and most important player, was supposed to repeat his MVP year and carry the Twins to the World Series.

Instead Mauer started off slow and was hitting only .293 at the all-star break with no signs of the home run power he had shown in 2009. The Twins were barely above .500. There were rumors Mauer was hurt, or too burden by the expectations bought on by his $184 million contract. Then Mauer kicked it into high gear, and since the All-star has hit .382 raising his batting average from .293 to .331. As Mauer started to hit, the Twins started win. Over the years people have tried to point out that Justin Morenau and Joe Nathan are more valuable to this team than Joe Mauer. This season proves that is not the case. Morneau and Nathan are nowhere to be seen, and yet the Twins are division champs. Joe Mauer has brilliant years in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010. In three of those years they have won division titles. The one year they did not (2008) they lost the division by 1 game when they lost a one game playoff to decide the division winner. Mauer in the lineup and playing brilliantly equals the Twins winning. Joe Mauer is this team’s MVP.

Below is a video taken by a fan of Jim Thome's August 17th walk off home run. You might want to turn your volume down when watching it as it is a little loud.