This God, This... Gardenhire

The Twins rookie manager deserves all the credit in the world

 You really have to love Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. If a team is going to take on the character and personality of its leader, a Minnesota baseball fan could hardly ask for a better guy in the manager's office than Gardenhire, a genuinely pleasant man who actually seems to enjoy his time at the ballpark, as well as his time away from it. Most days he even appears to relish the daily give-and-take with the media and the fans. All year he has dutifully acknowledged his respect for former manager Tom Kelly, even as he has spent the season skirting Kelly's long and very dark shadow and doing things exactly his own way. Yet if you place any stock in the dozens of emails I've received over the last six months, and the usual boneheaded free-for-all on the various team forums on the Internet, there are legions of fans that actually believe that the Twins managed to win this year despite Gardenhire, rather than because of any moves he did or didn't make. Right up to the end of September I was hearing from people every week who were still willing to believe that the Twins would have won the Central Division by 30 or more games if Kelly were still at the helm. This team, more than one reader suggested, would have easily surpassed 100 victories if it weren't for the egregious blunders of the rookie manager. There were even fans who insisted that the team's rash of injuries were somehow the fault of Gardenhire and his staff. Even first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz--in a much publicized article in the Washington Post--pooh-poohed Gardenhire's role in the team's success. Characteristically, Mientkiewicz later reversed his opinion when he told the Pioneer Press's Tom Powers, "I don't think [Gardenhire] gets as much credit as he deserves. Everybody on the team went down at one point or another. He kept us together." Which only proves that Mientkiewicz is right about half of the time--it's too bad he can't hit as well as he can waffle.

I've certainly quibbled with Gardenhire's decisions from time to time, but all of that stuff looks like so much nonsense in the light of the Twins' division series victory over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics. You can go ahead and consider Gardenhire the luckiest man in the world, but how then do you account for the fact that he rode a hobbled horse to a 94-win season and a spot in the American League Championship Series?

As gripping, and to be honest, as unexpected as the Twins victory over the A's in the Divisional Series was, the real story beyond all the tangled plot lines and excruciating drama was Gardenhire's performance in the biggest games of his life. His decision to start Brad Radke in game one was heavily scrutinized and widely derided; conventional wisdom said that Rick Reed, the team's best and most consistent starter down the stretch, deserved the nod. Radke, of course, proceeded to pitch the team through the abysmal opening innings of game one (during which the Twins coughed up four unearned runs behind him) and gutted out five innings to get the win. That game was merely prelude to the veteran's spectacular performance in the pivotal fifth game, in which he dueled Oakland lefty Mark Mulder and held the A's to one run in six and-two-thirds innings. For the series he was 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA.

Gardenhire is not a guy who gets terribly uptight; watching him chuckle in the dugout as his team played like beer league yahoos in the first couple innings of that first game was one of the most encouraging signs in the series. All season, the Twins have followed their manager's lead, and game one was a classic example, as they settled down and once again fought their way back to scratch out a victory on Oakland's turf.

Gardenhire's choice of rookie Michael Cuddyer as his right field starter in the series also raised plenty of eyebrows, including mine. Cuddyer spent most of the season in AAA Edmonton, and hit only .259 in 112 at bats with the Twins. Switch hitter Bobby Kielty's on base percentage alone was almost 100 points higher than Cuddyer's, and he hit .291 for the season.

Cuddyer, of course, rewarded Gardenhire's vote of confidence by going 2-3 with a run, an RBI, and a walk in the first game, and the rookie was 5-13 with three walks in the series.

In the fifth game, with the Twins season on the line, and the left handed Mulder on the hill for Oakland, Gardenhire shook things up for the first time in the postseason, starting switch-hitter Denny Hocking at second base for Luis Rivas, and right-handed Matthew LeCroy for David Ortiz at designated hitter. Both moves paid off immediately, as LeCroy singled and later scored the first run on a two-out single by Hocking in the second inning. In the third LeCroy singled home Cristian Guzman for the Twins second run. For the game Hocking and LeCroy were a combined 4-7 with two RBIs and a run scored. The addition of those two right-handed bats in the line-up for the Twins was huge. It also wasn't a particularly characteristic move by Gardenhire. As they have all year, Minnesota's left-handed hitters struggled against the A's lefthander, going 0-14 in the game five victory. The right-handed bats in the line-up, however, battered Mulder for nine hits in fourteen at bats. And the Twins lefties finally got their shot when Oakland manager Art Howe brought on his closer, the right-handed Billy Koch, to try to keep the game close in the ninth. Koch walked Dustan Mohr, who swings from the right side, and a batch of lefthanders gave the Twins all the insurance runs they would need: A.J. Pierzynski hit a two-run homer, and then, with two out, Guzman reached on an infield single, Corey Koskie walked, and David Ortiz (brought on as a pinch hitter for LeCroy in the eighth) doubled home Guzman for the fifth and ultimately decisive run.

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