One fan's journey through the Twins' not-so-excellent playoff adventures
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The Minnesota Twins open their sixth playoff appearance in nine years on Wednesday, when they host the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Target Field. Since that 2002 appearance saw them advance to the ALCS, though, it's been a series of first-round exits with a revolving cast, including plenty of names you may have forgotten. Chad Goldberg -- a Minnesota native, former minor-league play-by-play guy and self-made Twins historian -- reviews his recollections of the Twins' not-so-excellent postseason adventures.
LF Jacque Jones
SS Cristian Guzman
1B Doug Mientkiewicz
3B Corey Koskie
CF Torii Hunter
DH David Ortiz
C AJ Pierzynski
RF Dustan Mohr/Michael Cuddyer
2B Luis Rivas
This team absolutely dominated the division and clinched early, winning 94 games. Most guys in the lineup had career years and would never return to this form. Jacque Jones hit .300/.341./.511 with 27 HR. That is incredible.
In the ALDS, the Twins faced Oakland and had a disastrous first few innings in Game 1, making several errors and letting an infield fly drop on the mound as the A's took an early lead. I punched a radiator at my house at Stanford and was lucky to not have broken my hand. However, the Twins rallied somehow and won Game 1 7-5. Mays got pummeled in Game 2 (I was there), including a three-run job by Eric Chavez in the 1st inning. In the third game, Ray Durham led off with an inside-the-park HR against Rick Reed in the first playoff game in the Metrodome since Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Oakland never looked back and won, but the Twins rallied and captured Game 4 behind Eric Milton. Game 5 was back in Oakland and the Twins got a dramatic, ninth-inning, pimp-job HR from AJ Pierzynski and some insurance runs to take a 5-1 lead. Easy (Hard) Eddie managed to give up three runs in the 9th, including a HR to Mark Ellis before getting a defensive save by Denny Hocking on a running catch in the Coliseum's massive foul territory as the Twins advanced to the ALCS. Hocking was spiked in the dogpile and was left off the ALCS roster.
In Game 1 vs. Anaheim at the Dome, Mays beat the Angels (who topped the Yankees in the ALDS) 2-1, with Eddie getting the save. The Angels beat Reed in Game 2 and captured Games 3 and 4 in Anaheim. In Game 5, the Angels scored 10 runs in the seventh inning (including a few off reliever Johan Santana), led by Adam Kennedy's third HR of the series, and beat the Twins going away to advance to the World Series against San Francisco.
In hindsight, its amazing that this era of Twins baseball has continued the success that started with the 2001-2 Twins, who had one guy that is still on the 2010 team, and that guy didn't even really play in 2002. Every player has turned over and still they have continued to win 85 to 90 games per year.
David Ortiz had a solid year for the 2002 squad: .279/.339/.500 with 20 HR. This will sound stupid, but a stat line like that was not as appreciated as it would be in 2010 by most GMs and people in baseball. There is really no reason the Twins didn't renew Ortiz for one year. The only thing that I can think of is that they wanted to free up time for this young Canadian to play some 1B and DH in 2003, but Justin Morneau really didn't play much in 2003 and Ortiz went on to have one of the best stretches in baseball history.
LF Shannon Stewart
2B Luis Rivas
1B Doug Mientkiewicz
DH Matt LeCroy
3B Corey Koskie
CF Torii Hunter
RF Jacque Jones
C AJ Pierzynski
SS Cristian Guzman
Funny terrible players on this team: Todd Sears, Chris Gomez, Tom Prince, Michael Restovich, Tony Fiore, Brad Thomas.
Redhead Bobby Kielty was traded to the Blue Jays and July, and from that point forward, the Twins were a totally different team. Actually, this squad had a similar second half to the 2010 team and won its second straight division title, albeit this time with only 90 wins. The biggest difference between this team and 2002 was the emergence of former left-handed reliever Johan Santana, who went from a nasty left-hand setup guy to arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball. It happened pretty fast.
I give Gardy a lot of credit. His teams have consistently outperformed their expected won/loss record, based on runs scored and runs allowed. But he can be slow to change some things, and taking Santana out of the 'pen and getting him in the rotation, along with moving him to the front of rotation. didn't happen quickly enough. It was a semi-miracle Santana was chosen to start Game 1 over Brad Radke during the day at Yankee Stadium. Santana shut down the Yankees through four innings but left with an injury, and the Twins -- with the help of Rick Reed, LaTroy Hawkins, J.C. Romero and Eddie -- locked down a 3-1 win in Game 1. The next three games were extremely nondescript and even I can't really remember much about any of them. The Yankees won easily, including a win over Johan on short rest in Game 4. This was the beginning of the Yankees curse. Against Gardenhire's Twins, the Yankees (including playoffs) are 54-18.
Most shocking thing to me looking at the stats was that Matt LeCroy hit cleanup for this team. And that Matt LeCroy actually had a decent year in 2003.
After the season, Terry Ryan made an interesting deal. He traded AJ Pierzynski, a solid backstop and one of the better hitting catchers in the AL, to the Giants for RHP Boof Bonser, LHP Francisco Liriano and a middle reliever named Joe Nathan.
Before we get to 2004, which is a big year in Twins history, let's pay tribute to one of the most miserable teams in Twins history, the 1999 squad. Here is the 1999 starting lineup on Opening Day, a game I went to with (I believe) my Edina High School baseball teammates Tom Pelissero and Dave Laukkonen.
CF Torii Hunter
LF Chad Allen
2B Todd Walker
3B Ron Coomer
RF Matt Lawton
DH Marty Cordova
1B Doug Mientkiewicz
C Terry Steinbach
SS Cristian Guzman
Bench rookies: AJ, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones.
This team was really bad. They won 63 games. But it's important because in 1999, the franchise decided to stop being old. In 1998, the Opening Day starting lineup was:
CF Otis Nixon
2B Brent Gates
DH Paul Molitor
1B Orlando Merced
DH Marty Cordova
RF Matt Lawton
3B Ron Coomer
C Terry Steinbach
SS Pat Meares
I actually threw up typing that. I love Molitor, but by 1998 his career was basically over and he was of no use to this team. The 1998 team won 70 games. Nowhere close to being respectable. And it was OLD. Otis Nixon? Orlando Merced? Why? So, for Terry Ryan to blow up the team, play young players like Torii, Mientkiewicz, Guzman and Chad Allen (who I loved and thought would be the star in that group) and call up the other pieces of the 2002-2004 Twins ... that was a gutsy move. He knew that the team would have a $10 million payroll. He knew they would lose game after game, night after night, and it wouldn't get better for a while. But by deciding to be young and really terrible rather than older and slightly less terrible, he set the stage for the run that the Twins are still on in some ways. And the backdrop to this was the Twins almost moved to Charlotte in 1998, wanted a stadium, and were playing in front of 9,900 fans on the second day of the season. So, all Twins fans should thank Terry Ryan for his foresight and guts and the horrendous 1999 team.
Funny terrible players: Terry Tiffee, Pat Borders (1992 World Series MVP), Terry Mulholland, JD "Real Deal" Durbin.
This team is the real connection between the 2002 AL Central champs and the 2010 AL Central champs. The Pierzynski trade had one true purpose: to free up space for the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft, Joe Mauer. The players the Twins got back were a bonus. However, when Eddie G signed with the Mariners as a free agent in the offseason, the Twins needed a closer, and Nathan was the de facto guy coming into spring training.
And then Nathan got to Fort Myers and threw 85.
Nathan turned out to be a notoriously slow starter and was fine by the time the regular season rolled around. Better than fine, as he started a run of dominance in which, alongside Mariano Rivera, he was the best closer in baseball. In 2004, he saved 44 games, struck out 89 in 72 innings and put together the best season for a closer (to that point) in Twins history.
The other big change was going from Pierzynski to Mauer. And judged in a vacuum, the move didn't work out well in 2004. A.J. had a poor season in SF, got in fights with the pitchers and was non-tendered after the year. Mauer started his career in front of the hometown fans with a 2-for-3 night but the next day slid on the Dome's fake warning track, tore his meniscus and played in only 33 more games the rest of the year. That left the Twins with backup catchers Henry Blanco and Pat Borders in the lineup. Kind of amazing this team went to the playoffs actually.
Game 1 of the ALDS (again vs. the Yankees) started with Johan on a chilly night in the Bronx stifling the Yankees, beating the AL East champs 2-0. Johan wasn't dominant, allowing nine hits in seven innings, but he didn't allow a run, and Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan closed it out.
Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS is probably the worst playoff loss in 21st-century Twins history, topping the brutal 2009 ALDS Game 2. Twins trailed 4-2 going into the bottom of the 7th inning, when the Yankees had a 10-minute "God Bless America" break and froze Brad Radke, who gave up another run after sitting on the bench for what seemed like 25 minutes. Trailing 5-3 in the eighth, the Twins miraculously rallied. With one out and a runner on, Hunter singled off Tom Gordon and the Yankees decided to get Rivera for the four-out save. It was the one night I can remember Rivera being mortal. Morneau, who was far from the 2006 to 2010 Morneau that we know, singled to right field to score Jacque and cut the lead in half. Koskie stepped to the plate and drilled a ball deep into the gap. Off the bat, it looked like the Twins surely would take the lead, but the ball bounced on the track and over the wall for a game-tying -- but not go-ahead -- double. If it hits the wall, the Twins take the lead and have six outs for a 2-0 series lead. With a runner at second and one out in a 5-all tie, Gardy decided to stick with rookie DH Jason Kubel, who was 0-for-3 with a strikeout in his first playoff appearance. Lew Ford waited on the bench. Remember, Rivera's cutter is most difficult to hit for lefties, and righties hold a bit of an advantage with the ball moving away from them rather than in on their hands. Ford would never move as Kubel struck out on three pitches and Guzman grounded out to end the inning.
The Twins bullpen held the Yanks without a run and the game remained tied at 5 going into the 12th. Torii Hunter ripped a solo bomb to left field, highlighted by a nice bat-flip pimp job, and the Twins had a chance to close it out, leading 6-5 heading to the bottom of the 12th.
Joe Nathan, who rarely was called upon to get more than 3 outs during the regular season, came out for his third inning of work. At this point, after the Kubel eigth-inning K, I was screaming at the TV. He had arms up in the pen, including Jesse Crain and J.C. Romero. But he left a tiring Nathan on the hill. He was much better than the guys left in the pen, but he had also thrown some stressful pitches and pitched the night before. After retiring the first batter of the inning, Nathan walked the next two. A-Rod, who had yet to be labeled as a playoff choker (and subsequently a playoff hero after his HR off Nathan in 2009), ripped a game-tying double. Nathan left the game after an intentional walk and Romero gave up a sac fly to Hideki Matsui. Instead of returning to the Dome with a 2-0 lead, the Twins were tied 1-1. They have not won a game against the Yankees in the playoffs since.
The human brain, mine certainly included, tends to place emphasis on what has happened more recently than events that transpired long ago. From June 7, 2006 (more on this later) until he collided with John MacDonald in Toronto on July 7 of this season, ending his 2010 campaign, Justin Morneau was one of the top first basemen in baseball, a tremendous power hitter, a Home Run Derby Champion, an MVP and one of two critical cogs to the Twins playoff runs in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
But before June 7, 2006, Morneau was an underachiever who put up mediocre numbers and whom Torii Hunter once tried to punch in the face in the clubhouse.
For every questionable on-field decision Ron Gardenhire has made, he has made 10 great off-field decisions -- most of which the casual fan has no idea about -- that have worked out splendidly. One of his best was pulling Morneau aside in 2006 and telling him to focus on baseball rather than "off field activities." After that, Morneau had one of the best runs for a player in recent memory.
April: .208/.274/.416, 5 HR
May: .274/.333/.505, 5 HR
June: .364/.400/.737, 10 HR
July: .410/.430/.700, 8 HR
August: .294/.388/.490, 4 HR
September: .345/.397/.487, 2 HR
Morneau finished the year at .321/.375/.559, 34 HR, 130 RBI, 140 OPS+, and won the 2006 MVP, realizing his full potential. Remember, this is a guy who in 2005 hit .239/.304/.437.
Of course, Phil Mackey (and I) would argue that in 2006, the team and league MVP was actually Joe Mauer, who won his first batting title with a .347 average and tossed in a .429 OBP and a .507 slugging percentage. Morneau had much better counting stats (34 HR vs. 13 for Mauer, 130 RBI vs. 84 RBI). Of course, much of the reason that he had so many RBIs was because Mauer was always on base.
Despite having two guys that had MVP-caliber years, the first word that springs into most Twins fans' heads when they see that lineup is "Piranhas." After Ozzie Guillen gave the Luis Casillo, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett trio the "cute" nickname, the Twins acquired a persona that had some merit. Each of the players above got on base at an above average clip and set the table for Mauer, Morneau, Hunter, and Cuddyer. Hunter had another solid year and Cuddyer broke out, hitting .284/.362/.504.
On the pitching staff, all Johan Santana did was win another Cy Young (his second, should have been his third straight) and the Twins were spurred midseason by Francisco Liriano's amazing emergence (12-3, 2.16 ERA, 121 IP, 144 K) before being lost to Tommy John Surgery. This was Brad Radke's final year, as he pitched in incredible pain through most of the season but managed a serviceable line (12-9, 4.32 ERA, 162 IP, 32 BB, 83 K).
The Twins held first place alone for all of one day during the regular season, and that was the season's final day. After beating the White Sox at home, the Twins waited as Kansas City beat the Detroit Tigers, sealing the division and earning a home playoff start against Oakland rather than yet another trip to Yankee Stadium, which awaited Detroit. The Tigers, whose season in some ways resembled a better version of the 2001 Twins -- unexpected success after years of failure, although the Tigers did it with a much more veteran squad -- went on to accomplish something the Twins have not done: beat the Yankees in a playoff series.
Minnesota hosted Game 1 of the ALDS and had the Cy Young winner against Barry Zito. My friends may remember this as the "Buzzkill" game. Or at least I remember it as such. I DVRed this daytime matchup and had successfully gone the entire afternoon without seeing a thing. With 5 minutes left before I departed the office, I got a Gmail notification that said "Buzzkill" from Ryan Osterholm. Not his fault, obviously, but why I had that stupid thing open is beyond me. I deleted it the next day and have never used it since.
The "Buzzkill" was that resurgent Frank Thomas took Johan deep once and Jesse Crain once, and the Twins fell 3-2 with the only scoring for the home squad coming on DH Rondell White's two-run shot. The game lasted an almost unfathomable 2:19.
In Game 2, Boof Bonser held the A's scoreless through 4 but allowed two runs in the 5th. Solo HRs by Cuddyer and Morneau off A's starter Esteban Loaiza tied it in the sixth, but the A's managed another inside-the-park HR (see Ray Durham in 2002) by Mark Kotsay to take the lead for good in the 7th and won 5-2, needing only one more win to secure an ALCS berth. They got it in Game 3 when Brad Radke was roughed up early at the Coliseum in his final MLB start. Oakland went on to lose to the wild-card Tigers, who went on to lose to the 82-win St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 World Series. Who says the playoffs aren't a crapshoot?
One other thing worth mentioning: Terry Ryan gets and deserves a lot of credit for his personnel moves with the Twins. They haven't all been perfect, but he hasn't made many mistakes. Letting Ortiz walk was one, but it's a mistake that literally zero people in baseball saw coming. The Red Sox signed him as almost an afterthought. They were lucky. But Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire almost brought this team down in 2006 by signing and allowing Tony Batista (79 OPS+ in 2006) and Juan Castro (47 OPS+) to start the year as the left side of the infield. Sometimes signing old guys cheap works (see: Jim Thome). Sometimes it's a miserable failure, and the 2006 experiment fit into the latter category. The Twins survived it, but barely.
This is most fresh in people's memories, so I will keep it short. For the second straight year, the Twins went to a Game 163, this time with the Tigers. In the most thrilling and potentially most consequential "regular-season" game in Twins history, the Twins came back multiple times from near-defeat before eventually winning the AL Central on Alexi Casilla's RBI single in the 12th inning. The bad news for the Twins was that the rotation was in shambles and a guy who would start their 2010 season in the bullpen (Duensing) would have to take the ball for Game 1 at Yankee Stadium about 21 hours after the clincher at the Dome. So they had that going for them, which was nice. What was also not nice is that Morneau would miss the entire series with a back injury that kept him out of the stretch drive in September as well.
Duensing held his own in Game 1. In fact, despite a 7-2 loss, the Twins actually had the lead briefly. After a scoreless two innings, the Twins put two on the board against C.C. Sabathia in the third on an opposite-field single by Michael Cuddyer and a passed ball by Jorge Posada. The lead was short-lived, as Duensing gave up a single and a two-out, two run homer to Jeter in the bottom of the inning. Nick Swisher gave the Yankees the lead with an RBI double in the fourth. Still, Duensing was serviceable, giving up an RBI single to A-Rod in the fifth and leaving with a runner on. While he is one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2010, Francisco Liriano was a guy who almost didn't make the postseason roster in 2009, and he gave up a two-run HR to Hideki Matsui that essentially closed the books on the Twins in Game 1.
Game 2 was similar both in outcome and pain to Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS. Tied at 1 (a Brendan Harris pinch-hit triple accounted for the Twins only run) headed into the 8th, the Twins pushed across two runs against Joba Chamberlain on clutch hits from Punto and Span. Nick Blackburn, Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier combined for eight innings of one-run baseball, and heading to the ninth, Joe Nathan tried to lock down the first Twins playoff victory since Game 1 of the ALDS.
The game was tied before an out was recorded. Teixeira singled, and up stepped A-Rod, who ascended to his status as a "true Yankee" with a mammoth HR into the bullpen in right-center, tying the game. While Nathan escaped the ninth with no further damage, Twins fans' scarred pysches knew it was only a matter of time before the inevitable. In the top of the 11th, Mauer led off against Damaso Marte. Slicing a ball down the left field line, it looked as if the Twins would have the go-ahead runner at second. Left-field umpire Phil Cuzzi, in one of the more notorious calls in recent playoff history, ruled the ball foul despite replays that clearly showed hitting the foul line mere feet away from him. In fact, crew chief Tim Tschida admitted after the game "an incorrect decision" was made. While Mauer eventually reached on a single, Jason Kubel followed with a single that would have scored Mauer from second. Instead, the Twins loaded the bases with none out. Delmon Young hit a rocket to first for the first out, and the Twins eventually squandered the opportunity -- leaving three on without scoring. Teixeira ended the night with a solo HR off Jose Mijares leading off the 11th and the Twins trailed 2-0 headed back to the Dome. They left 17 runners on base in that one loss.
In Game 3, Carl Pavano dealt against his former team, shutting out the Yankees through six and striking out nine. Leading 1-0, Pavano gave up two solo shots in the seventh as the Yankees took the lead. With the Twins down 2-1, Nick Punto doubled to lead off the eighth. When Denard Span singled to deep shortstop, Punto turned too far around third and was nabbed by the Yankees as he headed back to the base, ending the Twins' last and best chance. The Yankees added two in the ninth and the Twins never scored again, as the Yankees closed the Metrodome with a 4-1 win en route to their 27th World Series championship.
I think the oddest part about the Twins' playoff history in the 21st century is how they haven't won a game at home since 2002 and at home are 2-9 from 2002 on, after going 11-1 in 1987 and 1991.
Whole new ballgame at Target Field. I almost wish it was colder.