By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
10. THE RETURN OF RONDELL WHITE
By the end of June, the Twins had seen enough. Rondell White's dimply cheeks and quick smile may have brightened the clubhouse, but his surgically reconstructed shoulder and .182 batting average were casting a pall over an otherwise resurgent offense. The front office showed incredible patience by placing White on the disabled list and shipping him to the minor-league Rochester Redwings to rehab his shoulder. That stint was cut short when the team lost four outfielders to injury in July. Reluctantly, Ron Gardenhire turned to the only outfield option he had left: Rondell White. On this day, the ailing slugger returned the favor by going 2-for-3 with his first home run since August 2005. Three games later, he hit two more into the left-field bleachers for his first multi-homer game in nearly six years. What's more, the turnaround wasn't a mirage: As of this writing, White has hit .284 since his return, with a slugging percentage of .528—well above Torii Hunter's career numbers.
Justin Morneau roared out of spring training in 2005 stroking home runs, getting on base, and lending credence to expectations that he would be one of the American League's top young mashers. Instead, he entered a season-long tailspin and finished with a measly .239 average and 22 home runs. It was easy to criticize Morneau for underperforming, but many in Twins nation saw another culprit: Ron Villone. On April 5, 2005, the 35-year-old Seattle relief pitcher airmailed an 0-2 fastball at Morneau's head. The slugger shrugged off the beaning, but later landed on the disabled list with a concussion, never to return to his pre-Villone form. Fast-forward to September 2, 2006. The Twins were on the road at Yankee Stadium, having ridden Morneau's bat back into the playoff hunt. Ron Villone was the Yankees' starter, marking the first time Morneau had faced the pitcher since the beaning. Morneau joked to teammates that he was going to line a fastball off Villone's head; instead, he lined one into the seats for a three-run homer. The rainy game was called the next inning, giving the Twins a 6-1 victory.
8. JOE MAUER GOES 5-FOR-5
Mauer's league-leading batting average jumped from .377 to .389 after he went 5-for-5 against the visiting L.A. Dodgers. The next day he went 2-for-3, raising his average to .392. It was as close to .400 as Mauer would get, and earned him a date with the Sports Illustrated cover curse a few weeks later. By September 15, the demands of catching had stripped almost 50 points from his average—leaving Mauer at a still-major-league-leading .347.
There hadn't been much to cheer about in the young season when the Twins came back from a five-run deficit to force the Angels into extra innings, but fans had reason for hope when the Halos brought in J.C. Romero to pitch the 10th. A situational lefty whose prior stint with the Twins had yielded great-looking stats, Romero also had a history of melting down in high-stress settings. With a man on and two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Gardenhire sent up pinch-hitter Cuddyer, who planted Romero's second pitch in the outfield seats for a 12-10 win.
6. MORNEAU HITS HOME RUN NUMBER 30
When the pride of New Westminster, British Columbia, turned on a 99-mph fastball from Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya, it not only made him the first Twin to crack 30 home runs since Kent Hrbek in 1987; it turned a 3-2 8th-inning deficit into a 4-3 Twins win, handing Johan Santana his 13th victory of the year in the process.
5. FRANCISCO LIRIANO ESCAPES THE BULLPEN
The much-remarked similarities between Cy Young shoo-in Johan Santana and injured phenom Liriano really are uncanny: Both are flame-throwing lefty strikeout artists with a pitch repertoire that includes an electric fastball, a wicked slider, and a knee-buckling changeup. And both began their Twins careers from the bullpen, despite complaints from the cheap seats that they should be starters now. Liriano's relegation to the pen seemed particularly absurd after the horrendous performance by the Twins' starting rotation in April. Finally, in Milwaukee, fans got what they were clamoring for. Liriano threw five innings of two-hit ball at the Brewers, striking out five. He never saw bullpen duty again, though his award-caliber season would be derailed by a blown elbow. Turned out hitters weren't the only victims of that slider.
If the promotion of Liriano to the starting rotation was big news here in the sticks, it was thin gruel in the national media compared to Roger Clemens's annual midsummer return. The future Hall of Famer's first game back with the Houston Astros happened to be a nationally televised interleague match-up against the Twins. Clemens did a fair job, giving up two runs in five innings while logging four strikeouts. But the star of the show was Liriano, who blew the Astros away for eight innings, striking out seven while giving up two runs on four hits and earning the win.
3. MORNEAU BEATS MARIANO RIVERA
When Morneau came to the plate in the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs, runners on second and third, and the Twins trailing by a run, most of the 42,316 people in the Metrodome had to believe the game was over. The man on the mound, Mariano Rivera, had been the most reliable closer in baseball for close to a decade—maybe the best ever. Sure, he'd let Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer get to second and third with nobody out. But then he came right back and fanned Rondell White and Torii Hunter, causing the Metrodome crowd to erupt in groans. They groaned again when they saw Mr. Disappointment of 2005 heading to the plate. First base was open, but the Yanks showed no inclination to walk the unproven Morneau. And then the unthinkable happened: On the first pitch from Rivera, he squirted a broken-bat single through the infield to score two runs and end the game.
2. TWINS SWEEP THE WHITE SOX IN CHICAGO
Through their first five road trips of the season, the Twins crawled to a 10-26 record punctuated by series sweeps at the hands of Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit (twice). And though the team was vastly improved by the time late July rolled around, it was still under duress to prove it could win consistently in other people's ballparks. By the time this three-game set at U.S. Cellular field was done, the Twins had won 12 of their last 13 games, outscoring opponents 76-47 over that span. The series win also moved them into a tie with the White Sox for second in the Wild Card race. Sox fans took a hard look at the situation and began to boo their own players.
1. THEY WEREN'T DEAD, THEY WERE ONLY SLEEPING
Barring some historic turn in the seventh game of the World Series, this 12-inning-comeback game versus the Boston Red Sox will go down as the best game of 2006. Also the most symbolically charged, since it's the date most people use to demarcate the team's big turnaround: 28-34 up to June 13, they proceeded to go 58-26 from then to September 14. The game was a pitching duel for the ages, with Santana squaring off against former World Series hero Curt Schilling. True to form, Santana had started off the season slowly. But on this night he struck out the first five batters he saw on his way to 13 K's in eight innings, including his 1,000th career punchout (of David Ortiz). But the first nine innings were only prelude to the real drama: In the bottom of the 12th, with the Twins down 2-1, the bases loaded, one out, and the count full, rookie Jason Kubel knocked his first career grand slam just over the baggy in right field to hand Minnesota the game 5-2. Kubel would eventually cool off; the Twins would not.