Another Ride on the Roller Coaster

Can the up-and-down Twins deliver another division title?

For the Twins' sake, and ours, here's hoping history doesn't have to repeat itself.

As Minnesota headed into the Fourth of July weekend on the heels of a three-game sweep at the hands of division rival Chicago at the Dome, it was almost painful to recall where this team was last year at this time--or, more accurately, where it was going, which was downhill in a hurry.

Last week's losses to the White Sox left the Twins at 41-36, two games behind Chicago in a race that should leave the rest of the mediocre (but improved) division in the rearview mirror by late August. Last season, at almost exactly the same point in the schedule, the Twins were 41-35 and in first place in the Central Division. They were also in the midst of being swept by the Sox in Chicago, en route to a 1-12 freefall that included eight straight losses leading into the break for the All-Star game. The Twins essentially spent the last two weeks of the first half digging themselves into a giant hole and the first 10 weeks of the second half climbing out of it. To their credit, after their obviously much-needed layoff for the break, they immediately pressured Chicago by winning five straight. They then proceeded to rip off an 11-game winning streak in September to bury the White Sox and claim their second straight division title.

This season it appears local fans could be in for another sustained nail-biting stretch of alternately infuriating and exhilarating baseball from this alternately infuriating and exhilarating team. Over the last several seasons, after all, the Twins have built a proven track record for maddening inconsistency and bad luck--not to mention stretches of incredibly bad performance. Granted, baseball's a game of collective and individual streaks and slumps. But there may be no team--certainly no successful team--that has ridden a wilder roller coaster than the Twins.

With the exception of last year's sublime September run, there really hasn't been a single sustained stretch throughout the team's ascendancy where the Twins have been firing on all cylinders, and this year has been no different. This club can't seem to sustain a healthy balance of solid pitching and offensive production. Something, or somebody, is always out of whack or out of commission. Just three months into this year's schedule we've already lived through a tale of two seasons. Maybe it's been more than that, actually--I've lost track. I can tell you it's already felt like a very long year.

 

As satisfying as the 2003 season was in many ways, it concluded on the sort of discouraging note--a first-round playoff loss to the Yankees, in which the Twins scored just six runs in four games--that made one wonder if this team was fated to be Major League Baseball's version of the Timberwolves. There were a couple of problems with that notion, of course: Oakland already pretty much has that role locked up, and the Twins don't have a single player of Kevin Garnett's stature. Not even close. What they have, in fact, is a core group of players whose games most closely mirror Troy Hudson's: by turns marvelous, maddening, muddled, and injured.

That fact was plainly evident against the Yankees in the postseason, and has in fact been plainly evident against the Yankees over the last couple of seasons. Shannon Stewart was magnificent after coming over in a midseason trade with the Blue Jays, but his inflated value to a team like the Twins was apparent during the playoff series with New York, when, batting in the leadoff spot, he went six-for-fifteen with two walks, yet registered exactly zero runs.

That's not Stewart's fault, of course, nor can he be blamed that Twins fans--and the Twins' front office--fell madly, irrationally in love with him. And so in a flat free-agent market when few other teams expressed serious interest in Stewart, Minnesota rewarded him with a three-year contract and is paying him $5,500,000 this season. This for a player whose main value at this point is his career .368 on-base percentage. The dirty secret about Stewart, obscured in last year's mostly justified hosannas, is that he's not much of an outfielder, and couldn't throw out Pigmeat Markham trying to score from second on a sharp single to left. He's also 30 years old and has a history of leg ailments that caused Toronto, his former employer, to fret about his durability, particularly after a number of successive games on artificial turf.

Hindsight, of course, is whatever it is that people say it is, but Stewart, who was off to a solid start, went down early with plantar fasciitis and has already missed 46 games. Plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the tendon that connects the heel to the toes) is a worrisome injury for any professional athlete, but especially for a guy who had already lost most of the traction on his wheels and was no longer any kind of a serious threat on the base paths. After topping out at a career-high 51 swipes in 1998, Stewart managed just four stolen bases (in 10 attempts) last year.

As fine a hitter as Stewart might still be, the foolishness of the Twins tossing such a huge chunk of their discretionary income in his direction can be illustrated by the compelling saga of Lew Ford. Ford started the season at Triple-A,and was an early call-up when Torii Hunter was sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's easily been the Twins' most consistent hitter in the first half, has been superb patrolling left field, and is a dark-horse candidate to make a trip to the All-Star game. Yet despite his surprising and encouraging success--he's essentially been the player the Twins were hoping Stewart would be, and then some--the team is still not scoring runs. It often feels like Stewart versus the Yankees all over again, only spread out over three months.

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