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Curse of Punto: The 5 Best Twins Moments of the ‘Millennial Era’

Minnesota Twins' Carlos Gomez (22) scores the game-winning run as his teammates follow during the 12th inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 6-5 to take the AL Central title. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

I don’t know that I have much to say about the 2016 Twins right now that hasn’t already been covered in detail on this site. We seem to be at the point in the offseason where the airplane doors have been shut, the safety video is playing, and we’re waiting to be cleared for takeoff. Terry Ryan, for better or worse, appears finished in terms of making acquisitions, particularly now that he’s addressed the left side of the bullpen.

Sure, there could be a spring training trade, but based on what we know about Ryan and the way he’s handled this offseason, my guess is that the current passengers on the plane are more or less going to be the same as when the plane takes off in April (although the image of Ryan ripping Ricky Nolasco out of his seat and throwing him out an emergency exit is a fun one to think about).

So, as we wait for spring training and the 2016 season to officially get underway, I thought I’d use this lull in the calendar to take a look back at the recent past. Although the ’87 and ’91 World Series wins are etched in Twins history, it’s easy to forget some of their more recent triumphs, particularly because these wins were always followed shortly thereafter by crushing, season-ending losses, which tend to leave a more enduring mark on our collective memories. What I’m going to do here, then, is recap five of the best Twins moments from what I’m calling the “Millennial Era.”

I’m defining the Twins Millennial Era as 2001-2015. The reason I see this is as a relevant period is because most Millennials, of which I am one, were too young to really remember, or at least fully understand, the ’91 World Series.  Even though I was alive, and presumably watched at least some of the games, it meant far less to me than, say, the candy I got a few days later during the great Halloween Blizzard of ’91 (or my parents’ divorce!). So, for many Millennials, I think caring about the Twins began sometime around 2001, when the dark ages of the mid and late 90’s finally passed and the Twins regained their relevance. Frankly, even if I were to begin the era at, say, 1995, there weren’t really any definable moments during that time that are worthy of making this list. So, 2001-2015 it is.

It must be noted that, even when starting in 2001, this is still a pretty underwhelming list, considering it’s a summation of a 15-year stretch. There’s nary a World Series appearance in the bunch, and just one game past the first round of the playoffs. Alas, such is life as a Minnesota sports fan.

Nevertheless, press on we must and press on we will. For when the day finally comes that our brave warriors make an actual playoff run, the champagne will taste extra sweet, the beer will be extra cold, and the dome dogs that clog our arteries will finally pass. Until that day comes, we’re left with what we have: a few happy memories mixed in with the bitter taste of prolonged disappointment. I guess sports really is a microcosm of life. (note: It’s mid-February, we’re all cold and depressed,  just go with it.)

So, without further ado, here are my five favorite Twins moments of the Millennial Era. Let the adrenaline pump and the tears flow.

No. 5. September 23-25, 2008: Twins 9 White Sox 3; Twins 3 White Sox 2; Twins 7 White Sox 6

The 2008 season sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when thinking about recent exciting Twins seasons, because it ultimately ended without a playoff appearance, after the Twins lost Game 163 to the White Sox 1-0 in Chicago on a late Jim Thome home run. But one week prior, against those same White Sox, the Twins put together perhaps the most exciting regular season series in recent Twins history.

The Sox came to Minneapolis in late September with a 2.5-game lead over the Twins with just six games to play, and I vowed to go to every game of the series until they lost.  This turned out to be a rare correct decision regarding my attending major Minnesota sporting events. Anyways, the two teams had been battling each other for the division the entire year, with no team holding more than a 3-game lead over the last three months of the season. The Sox, though, were trying to run out the clock on the Twins, and it appeared to be working. They’d put the Twins in a position where anything less than a sweep would all but clinch the division for Chicago.

Game one was a laugher, with the Twins holding a 7-1 lead by the 5th inning, and eventually winning 9-3. Attendance for that game was 35,000, and the dome crowd was loud, but we weren’t ready to fully let ourselves go, knowing a win that night was only step 1.

The next night, 42,000 attended, and we watched the Twins jump out to an early 3-2 lead, then hold down the potent White Sox lineup inning after inning after inning. As the game progressed, and the Twins bullpen continued to preserve their tentative one-run lead, you could feel the crowd beginning to sense that something real was happening. By the 8th inning, everyone was standing, and when Joe Nathan closed out the 3-2 win in the 9th, it felt like a playoff game, with the dome providing the unique home-field advantage it was capable of when filled to near capacity with screaming fans. Momentum was squarely on our side, with one critical step to go.

When 44,000 attended Game 3, the excitement was palpable. The Twins scored early, and the dome was in a frenzy. “This is happening!” I yelled to my friend from the upper deck. Then, disaster. Kevin Slowey, perhaps distracted by the Immanuel Kant work he’d read the night before, gave up six runs in the top of the fourth, and just like that, the dream seemed dead. For 22 straight innings, the Twins had dominated the White Sox as momentum grew and grew, and in one half inning, it all seemed to die. Suddenly, the White Sox held a 5-run lead and were just 15 outs away from escaping Minneapolis with the final game of the series, and probably, the division.

But the Twins weren’t dead. They answered back immediately in the bottom of the fourth with 2 runs, then another in the sixth, to make it 6-4. Still, as they entered the bottom of the 8th down two runs, things appeared bleak. Brendan Harris (!), though, started off the 8th with a double, and after a Nick Punto groundout and Carlos Gomez RBI single, Denard Span came to the plate with the tying run on first and one out. Span hit a chopper  just out of the reach of Paul Konerko, landing fair by inches and rattling around in the right field corner. Gomez, with his blazing speed, scored easily, and Span ended up on third, the go-ahead run 90 feet away. That Span triple remains the loudest I’ve ever heard the dome. It was pure pandemonium, because that hit didn’t just complete a huge in-game comeback, it revived the three-day adrenaline ride that had seemed all but gone. Although Span wouldn’t score in the 8th, two innings later Alexi Casilla delivered a two-out walk-off hit in the 10th to complete the sweep, and a three-night run at the dome I’ll never forget.

No. 4. September 30th, 2003: Twins 3 Yankees 1

The Twins entered Yankees Stadium for Game 1 of their 2003 ALDS matchup as huge underdogs. The Yankees bullying of the Twins had already begun taking shape, with New York taking all seven of their regular season matchups that season. Nobody, myself included, gave the Twins much of a chance.

My roommate throughout college was from Long Island, and a huge New York sports fan. After he’d insisted on taping the “41-0” Sports Illustrated cover from the Vikings-Giants 2001 NFC Championship game to our dorm room wall our freshman year, and after nearly coming to blows over that, we’d agreed that we wouldn’t talk to each other for the duration of the Twins-Yankees series. For five days, we lived together in complete silence. Maturity was not a trait either of us possessed at that point in our lives.

Game 1 of that series was on a Tuesday afternoon, and we’d both skipped work to watch it in our apartment, unbeknownst to the other. For three and a half hours we sat awkwardly side by side in complete silence, drinking Hamm’s, punching pillows, but never saying a word aloud.

The Twins took an improbable lead in the middle innings, stretching it to 3-0 on a Torii Hunter RBI triple that turned into a de facto inside-the-park home run on a throwing error. Still, the lead never seemed safe, as the Yankees threatened almost every inning against a bevy of Twins relievers. Finally, Everyday Eddie entered in the 9th to lock it down. After giving up three hits and a run, the winning run stood at the plate with two outs in the 9th. As my roommate and I paced, drank, and avoided eye contact at all costs, Guardado and Nick Johnson engaged in a prolonged battle. Eventually, mercifully, Johnson grounded out to third, securing the 3-1 win and a 1-0 lead in the series. The second the last out was recorded, I sprinted out the door and let out a yelp that Howard Dean would mimic a year later.

 

College was fun.

No. 3. October 8th, 2002: Twins 2 Angels 1

After their incredible ALDS win over Oakland (more on that soon), the Twins came home to take on the Angels in the ALCS. This game had a very different feel to it than all subsequent Twins playoff games I’d attend, because there wasn’t a collective feeling that an inevitable meltdown was coming the way there seemed to be once they started playing the Yankees. This team was just fun. They were young, loose, energetic, and fighting off Carl Pohlad, Bud Selig and contraction the only way they could: by winning. If that 2002 team had gone 78-84, I don’t think the Twins would still be in Minnesota. But they went 94-67, knocked off the prohibitive World Series favorites in the first round, and came back to Minnesota with an entire state behind them.

Nevertheless, the 99-win Angels posed a formidable challenge. They had a lineup filled with hulking sluggers. Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus, Brad Fullmer, Scott Spezio and others looked more like superheroes than baseball players, with biceps busting out of their uniforms and veins bulging out of their temples. I’m guessing the Angels equipment manager had to order a lot of extra large helmets that year. And who were the Twins throwing out for Game 1 to face those behemoths? Joe Mays and his 5.38 ERA.

Mays, though, dominated. In front of a raucous dome crowd, he went 8 strong innings, giving up 4 hits and an unearned run in what was surely the best start of his career. After Guardado earned the save and the Twins claimed a 2-1 win, a euphoric Twins crowd erupted into the streets, singing, high fiving, blaring car horns. At that moment I truly believed the Twins were going to win the World Series. Instead, they’d lose the next four, and have gone a combined 2-19 in playoff games since. 2-19!

No. 2. October 6th, 2002: Twins 5 A’s 4

What set the stage for that Game 1 ALCS win, of course, was the Twins’ incredible Game 5 win in Oakland two days prior. That game and that series were remarkable for so many reasons. Here were the aforementioned contraction-fighting, upstart Twins, taking on the 103-win A’s and their three-headed monster of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. That A’s team won 20 games in a row that season (a streak the Twins ended) and seemed destined for October greatness. Hell, they made a movie about them.

That the Twins even made it to Game 5 was remarkable. The A’s led 5-1 after two innings in Game 1, before the Twins came back for an unlikely 7-5 win. Oakland took Games 2 and 3 with ease, and held a 2-0 lead early in Game 4. But the Twins battled back, largely on the strength of David Ortiz’s bat (whatever happened to that guy?), to force a Game 5 the next day in Oakland. The game was tense throughout, with the Twins somehow maintaining a 2-1 lead from the 3rd through 8th innings, despite numerous Oakland threats. In the 9th, they finally busted through, and when A.J. Pierzynski hit a 2-run home run and Ortiz eventually followed with an RBI double to make it 5-1, it appeared as though we could finally relax a bit. Guardado, of course, made sure that wasn’t the case. Within about 5 minutes he’d given back three runs, and suddenly the A’s were within a run, had a runner on base, and Ray Durham at the plate. Durham kept fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch, and with a tiring Guardado taking a minute between every one of them, the at-bat seemed like it went on forever. At long last, though, one of Durham’s foul balls would stay within the huge confines of the Coliseum, hanging in the air just long enough for Denny Hocking to make a fine running catch to secure the win.

For seven years, I thought that game couldn’t be topped, until…

No. 1. October 6th, 2009: Twins 6 Tigers 5

Describing this one in detail seems a bit pointless, because if you’ve made it this far in the column you’re either a masochist or a big enough Twins fans to remember every nuance of the game, and the rollercoaster of emotions it produced. Like all of you, I’m still working through it with my psychiatrist. Nevertheless, here are a few things that stood out for me from what was a truly remarkable game (follow along here, the game in its entirety, for full effect:

  • Jason Kubel’s home run in the 6th (1:43:30 in the aforementioned Youtube video). The ball went into the upper deck in almost straight away center. I don’t know that I saw five balls hit to that spot in the dome in the hundreds of games I watched in person or on TV. A mammoth blast.
  • Orlando Cabera’s two-run, go-ahead home run in the 7th (2:24:00). Watch Ryan Raburn in left. If he times his leap right he probably makes the catch, and the game likely ends very differently.
  • Magglio Ordonez’s lineout double play in the 9th (3:15:40). He absolutely smokes this ball. If it’s not hit right at Cabrera, it’s probably a 2-run double in the gap. That was the moment you knew this game was going to be historic.
  • Michael Cuddyer’s triple in the 10th, with the Twins down 5-4 (3:44:50). Ryan Raburn could not have possibly played this ball worse. He should have never tried to catch the ball, but he did, and turned a single into a triple. Raburn, with his mistimed leap in the 7th and misplay in the 10th, more or less handed the Twins three of their six runs. Thanks, Ryan!
  • Chip Caray’s horrendous call in the 10th of Alexi Casilla getting thrown out at home trying to score the winning run on a Nick Punto lineout (3:54:00). Here’s his call, verbatim: “Line drive base hit! Caught out there! Runner tags, here he comes, throw to the plate, on target and in time! A double play ends the 10th!” Chip turned a game-winning base hit into a double play in 5 seconds. Impressive work.
  • As much as we all like to complain about Phil Cuzzi’s horrendous call negating Joe Mauer’s extra innings double in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS at Yankees stadium, the Twins likely never would have made it to that point if Randy Marsh had correctly called Brandon Inge being hit by a Bobby Keppel pitch with the bases loaded in the 12th inning of Game 163 (4:24:40). We all also like to forget that in that Yankees game the Twins still loaded the bases with nobody out that inning, and failed to score. Ahh, denial. We all have to get through the day somehow.
  • Let’s end this column by getting that serotonin flowing. Alexi’s Casilla’s game-winning hit (4:38:40). This probably stands as the most euphoric I’ve ever felt watching the Twins. Spring is coming, friends.

(Anything I missed? Disagree with my picks? Feel free to set me straight in the comments section).





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Previous Story VIDEO: Early rounds of batting practice: Byung Ho Park, Adam Brett Walker II, Max Kepler Next Story Wetmore: Wide range of grades, opinions over how the Twins did this winter