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Capturing the Flag

Feelin' the love: A.J. Pierzynski and Eddie Guardado celebrate another Twins win
Craig Lassig

I tried everything with this Twins team over the last six months. I tried wheedling, tough love, open derision, and the velvet-glove treatment. I sacrificed personal hygiene and subjected the temple of my body to the indignities of abject malnutrition, all in the name of the most humiliating sort of superstition. I screamed obscenities at the television--and, in my darker moments and in an attempt to spare my wife and dog the spectacle of my tantrums--at the radio in my car.

During the unfathomably bleak stretch before the All-Star game, when the Twins were in the midst of a free fall that saw them lose 12 of 13 games, I often as not found myself parked in far-flung and desolate suburban locales, moving my car between innings in a wholly unsuccessful attempt to change the team's floundering fortunes. I would park along quiet streets or in strip mall parking lots, where I would slump, ranting, behind the steering wheel, gorging myself on Super America microwave burritos and Pringles as the Twins got pounded by Chicago, by Cleveland, Texas, and Anaheim.

Those were very dark days indeed. And I'm sure at one point or another during the long, strange trip that has been the 2003 Twins' season I impugned the decent character of everyone who ever stepped on the field in a Minnesota uniform. That wasn't all, of course; my disdain extended to the team's manager, coaching staff, clubhouse attendants, batboys, mascot, and front office personnel.

I didn't much like myself by the time the All-Star game rolled around, but I liked the Minnesota Twins even less.

I should point out that I'm not really much of a sports fan. I suppose if you put a gun to my head I might attend a football or hockey game, but you'd have to pull the trigger to get me to sit still for a NASCAR race or a soccer match. But I am a baseball fan, and the game takes all of the patience and passion I can afford to waste on a sport. The long season leaves me drained to an extent that should make me ashamed, and when the postseason crashes almost immediately into winter I need every one of those dark months before spring training for hibernation and recuperation.

For a variety of reasons both obvious and complicated, even before I reached the All-Star break this season I was already in the darkest of late-October moods. Some of that, I'm sure, was a product of the expectations I had for this year's team, and the extent to which it seemed doggedly determined to pound every one of those expectations out of my skull with a Louisville Slugger. The Twins of mid-season couldn't make contact with a Scott Klingenbeck fastball, but every time they swung in my direction they put another crack in the piñata that was my heart.

The Twins were killing me, and my increasingly hysterical reaction to their struggles was an obvious cry for help. Thankfully, well-meaning friends and family reached out to me. "It's not worth it," they told me. "Take some time off." There was a concerted intervention, and I was dragged off to art fairs, plays, movies, and--when I was at my most vulnerable and nearly comatose--to a Lynx game.

I was still miserable. I can't deny that. Breakups are always hard, and I'd never turned my back on this team, even during the brutal years that preceded the 1987 championship and the long period of post-1991 futility. I've cared about the Minnesota Twins for longer than I've cared for anyone or anything that isn't related to me by blood.

I still couldn't resist a peek at the box scores in the morning, and fought a losing battle to regain control of the radios at home and in the car. My wife also used some sort of child protection screen to lock down ESPN on our television. It was a frustrating couple of weeks, but I suppose the experience was in many ways therapeutic. For me, certainly, but also for the Twins.

Because a funny thing happened during my mid-season holdout: the Twins responded like spurned lovers. After knee-walking to a 44-49 first-half finish that left them seven and a half games out of first place, the Twins started to play at least intermittently inspired baseball.

My friends and family tried to protect me for as long as they could. They weren't about to let me crawl back to baseball until there was at least a fighting chance that the Twins weren't going to just turn around and kick me in the nuts again. The Twins were going to have to show real and convincing signs that they had truly changed, and were prepared to reward my adoration with something approaching at least constancy and consistency.

 

Because, let's face it, there was still a lot of baggage left over from that first half. The Twins had fallen behind by eight games in late April, only to go on a 19-9 May run that gave them a five game lead on June 6. Their skid leading up to the break then put them back in that almost inconceivable seven-and-a-half game hole. There was, of course, almost no precedent for a team--let alone such a maddeningly inconsistent team--overcoming such a large deficit in the second half, but when the Twins came out of the All-Star break with a four-game sweep of Oakland I started sneaking out of the house to listen to the games on a transistor radio I had hidden in the garage.

I managed, though, to stay pretty much on the wagon--or at least the sidelines--until the end of July, when I finally received clearance from my doctor to again attend games at the Metrodome. The Twins had just taken two of three from Baltimore, and Detroit was coming to town, which seemed a safe enough point of reentry.

I came back refreshed, even if I remained initially steeled for heartbreak. I'd done a lot of soul searching in the time away, and was determined to be a better, less critical fan. I recognized that in my relentless and fatalistic negativity I had been in large part culpable for the Twins' first-half struggles, and promised myself that, come what may, from that point forward--at least regarding the Twins--I was going to be a glass-is-half-full guy.

What can I say? It obviously worked. That's not to say there haven't been a few little rocky stretches on the road to reconciliation; there was one wretched loss to Baltimore that I've almost managed to forget, not to mention a series in which the Twins lost three of four to Cleveland, but at this point that's nitpicking. Because by and large the second-half incarnation of the Twins has been everything I hoped they would be back in April.

Even that pennant race that seemed such a thrilling possibility a mere two weeks ago has been reduced to more nonsense and noise in a season that has been full of nonsense and noise in equal measure. Were there actually people--experts and fans alike--who were convinced that the Kansas City Royals were for real, or that the White Sox were the superior team in the American League Central? Were there, in fact, people who honestly believed that a team managed by Jerry Manuel would come into the Dome and bury the Twins? Were you, perhaps, one of those folks who thought that the Central division would not be decided until the season's final weekend, and that the Twins' post-season hopes would actually hinge on a series with the woeful Detroit Tigers?

Well, all I can say is, shame on all of you. And shame on each and every one of us who ever entertained a doubt about this Twins team. Because while my "glass-is-half-full" approach has been devastatingly effective in restoring my sanity, I must now admit that even I was selling this club short; the glass in this instance may, in fact, be at least a little bit more than half full.

I'm more than happy and willing to eat my share of crow, and the rest of you should be willing to eat yours as well. I was wrong in the head, I can now see that, and I feel nothing but regret for all the nasty things I've said and thought about this team. I even feel lousy for the terrible stuff I wrote about Joe Mays and Rick Reed, but how the hell was I supposed to know that one of them was pitching with an elbow held together with frayed dental floss and the other was laboring with a swollen cantaloupe lodged in his lower back?

I had no way of knowing until it was too late, but I'm sorry nonetheless. I like to believe that all is forgiven--it is on my end, at any rate. And right now only the gloomiest and most pathological of sour pusses could possibly find things to carp about.

Because try to forget for a minute about all the ugly wreckage that is scattered along the long road behind us, and think about where this team now is and where it has come from. My God, it's truly mind-boggling.

So just how good have the Twins been in the second half? Let us count the ways:

  • Through Monday they're now a major league-best 43-20 since the All-Star break, and have just reeled off a season-best nine straight wins when it mattered most.

     

  • After having one winning month through July they've now gone 18-11 in August, and an incredible 16-4 in September.

  • The starters are 32-13 since the break, and Brad Radke, Johan Santana, and Kyle Lohse are a combined 25-5 in the second half. Santana, who is still going to have to learn to be more efficient (he's routinely reaching the 100-pitch mark in the sixth inning), has nonetheless been a lifesaver since moving to the rotation; he's now 12-3 with a 3.17 ERA and has limited opponents to a paltry .219 batting average. Radke, who was 5-9 with a 5.49 earned run average at the break, has gone 9-1 with an ERA just under 3.50 since. He has also now faced 116 batters without issuing a walk, and outdueled Chicago ace Estaban Loaiza in back-to-back starts in September.

  • The team's second-half ERA of 3.89 is now second to only Oakland's in the American League. Minnesota's improved pitching is even more impressive considering that two of the team's original starters, Joe Mays and Rick Reed, have been complete washouts.

  • LaTroy Hawkins is now 4-1 with a 0.89 ERA since the All-Star break, and has struck out 21 while walking only four in 30-and-a-third innings pitched. Closer Eddie Guardado, meanwhile, despite fewer save opportunities, is actually having an even better year than he had last season, when he set a team record with 45 saves. This season Guardado has 39 saves in 43 tries, has given up 47 hits and 14 walks in 63 innings pitched, and has limited opponents to a .208 batting average. The team's bullpen has continued to excel despite a dramatic falloff from the suddenly erratic J.C. Romero, whose emergence last year was so pivotal to the pen's success.

  • The Twins have now surpassed last season's run and walk totals, and have decreased their strikeouts by over 100. They've done this despite the fact that a handful of key players (Corey Koskie, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, and Luis Rivas) have been playing through nagging injuries for much of the second half.

  • Despite the universal (and justified) perception that he's had a huge drop in offensive production (he's had a nearly 100-point decline in his OPS--on base plus slugging percentage), Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter has nonetheless managed to surpass last year's RBI totals. Hunter now has 100 RBIs and his 26 homeruns easily leads the team.

  • While it would be foolish to argue that the Twins haven't missed David Ortiz, Matthew LeCroy has been a more than adequate substitute at DH, and his numbers actually compare favorably with Ortiz's from 2002; LeCroy now has 17 homeruns and 62 RBIs in only 330 at bats, and his .828 OPS is damn close to the .839 Ortiz put up last year.

  • With 87 wins and six games to play, it seems entirely likely that the Twins will reach 90 wins for the second year in a row. This would mark only the second time they've reached that plateau in back-to-back seasons (the other was 1991-92, and the '92 team, of course, failed to win the division). Ninety wins seemed impossible even two weeks ago, and at this point, with the additions of Shannon Stewart and Kenny Rogers, the reemergence of Eric Milton, and the improvement of Luis Rivas and Doug Mientkiewicz, I don't think it's far-fetched to argue that this team--at least at the moment--is a better club than last year's division winner. Whether they'll be able to sustain their second-half momentum in a playoff series with the Yankees--a team that has owned them the last two years--is, of course, a big and potentially troubling question. As good as the Twins have been the last couple of months, they're going to have to get even better.

I'm done doubting them, though. I know that much. The glass is half full until it gets even fuller or it's half empty again, at which point--either way--I'll be back in the darkness, waiting for winter's bulldozers to come rolling down my street.


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