Bet the Underdog
Given that the Twins wrapped up their third consecutive Central Division title with a more than nine-game lead over second-place Chicago, a casual observer could easily conclude that the 2004 season was a cakewalk in Minnesota. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but as those of us who rode the roller coaster from start to finish know, this isn't, alas, a team that's mastered the art of the cakewalk. What they've done for the last three years, though, is win when it counts, at least during the regular season.
By the time you read this, the Twins will already have at least one playoff game under their belts in New York. Depending on how things go--or went--in that first game, you may be feeling giddy, uneasy, or even very despondent. At this point I obviously have no control over that. But I can at least remind you of three games out of the 162 the Twins played before boarding their plane to New York that made it possible for you to still be feeling anything but the hand-wringing woe people are experiencing in places like Oakland, Chicago, and San Francisco right now.
The first game of the trio was back on June 9, when Johan Santana took the mound against the New York Mets at the Metrodome. Santana at the time was 2-4 with a 5.50 earned run average and had lost his last four starts, including a now mind-boggling 17-7 shellacking at the hands of the White Sox on May 23, a game in which he lasted just three innings and surrendered seven earned runs.
The Twins were 31-26 and a game behind in the Central going into Santana's start versus the Mets, and he pitched seven innings in Minnesota's 5-3 victory that day, giving up one run while striking out ten and walking none. Following that start, which lowered his ERA to 5.11, Santana said, "I think this will be the beginning of something good," which proved to be the understatement of the season. The now-prohibitive favorite to win the AL Cy Young award proceeded to go 17-2 the rest of the way, including 5-0 with a 0.45 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 40 September innings. To put that in perspective, consider that the Twins were 15 games above .500 after the All-Star break; over the same period, Santana was 13-0.
On July 24 the White Sox held a half-game lead in the Central, but by the time Minnesota went into Chicago two days later the Twins had managed to creep up to the top of the division (again by a half-game). Chicago had done its usual wheeling and dealing in an attempt to fortify its roster for the second half, and Brad Radke was facing Mark Buehrle, who had a 13-4 career record against the Twins, including six straight wins. Radke easily out-dueled Buehrle that night, but the Twins essentially knocked Chicago out of the race in the eighth inning when, with the Twins holding onto a 4-1 lead, Torii Hunter tagged up on a shallow fly ball to left off the bat of Henry Blanco and drilled catcher Jamie Burke before he even had a chance to field the ball. The collision sent Burke to the hospital, energized the Twins, and left the White Sox both incensed and beleaguered. Nine days later Minnesota's lead was six games, and from that point through the end of August Chicago limped to a 12-22 record and fell out of contention.
By the middle of August, however, that six-game lead had evaporated, as the surging Indians won the first two of a series in Cleveland to shave the Twins' Central margin down to a single game. The Indians had gone 21-10 since the break, and had won six straight going into the finale at Jacobs Field.
Terry Mulholland, the 41-year-old lefthander whom the Twins acquired off the waiver wire for $1 in April, drew the start against the hot-hitting Indians, and gutted out eight innings of six-hit baseball before turning over a 2-2 game to the bullpen. Corey Koskie hit a two-run homer off Rick White in the 10th, and Joe Nathan picked up his 34th save as the Twins managed to salvage the series and sneak out of Cleveland with a two-game lead. The Indians, meanwhile, lost 15 of their next 20 to disappear from the race.
Which brings us to right now, when Twins fans may be either celebrating or crying in their Yoo-Hoo. There's been plenty of bitching about Minnesota's failure to win home-field advantage in the first round, and whether the moves Ron Gardenhire did or didn't make end up biting them in the ass in the playoffs can be debated at a later date. All the same, and with the full knowledge that I already might look like an idiot for saying so, it was plenty fine with me that the Twins opened on the road in New York. I like their chances against the Yankees' mediocre and banged-up starting pitching--its 4.69 team ERA is the worst of all the playoff teams and ranked 19th in the majors this season. I know the Twins' recent record of futility against the Yankees as well as anyone, and I recognize that New York was 57-24 at home this year, but I also know that Joe Torre doesn't have a lefthanded starter, nor a single guy on his staff who won more than 14 games or pitched 200 innings. Given the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium and the lopsided homerun splits of the Twins lefty power hitters (Koskie, Jones, and Morneau) versus right-handed pitching, I like those match-ups. And I'd sure as hell rather see Johan Santana pitching in New York than in Boston, although at this point I'm pretty giddy to see him pitching anywhere.
The bottom line is that conventional wisdom pretty much dictates that the AL champion is going to have to go through New York. If the Twins are going to win, they may as well get the Yankees in their rearview mirror right out of the blocks.
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