Dream the Impossible Dream
It's all over. The Chicago White Sox are deader than shit on a shingle. The only thing now standing between the Twins--coasting along with a 14 game lead in the American League central division--and the postseason at this point is, sadly, the very real threat of another unthinkable work stoppage. That, you might remember, was the fate of the 1994 Montreal Expos, who had a 74-40 record and a six game lead in the National League East when the players walked out, ending the season and effectively beginning Montreal's long slide toward extinction.
For now, though, I'd recommend the cautiously optimistic approach, however unwarranted it might seem. What choice, really, do we have? We're not Red Sox fans after all. We're not Cubs fans. The more pathetic and hopeless among you might be Vikings fans, but I'll remind you that the Twins alone have taken us down this road before; it seems a distant memory now, but this is a team that has given us a reason to believe in the past. Remember that? Remember 1987 and 1991? Remember game six? Baseball can kick you in the crotch one moment and take you to the river the next. That's the beauty of the rotten game. So let's hold our horses, and hold onto whatever hope we can muster. Hope, after all, is a prerequisite of baseball fanaticism; its darker flipside, of course, is bile. But we should stockpile that for the time being, and spew it by the boatload when necessary, and when it'll make us feel a whole lot better.
For the time being, the Twins are a very good team and are, scarily, getting better by the day. We should have seen it coming, of course; the team spent the first half overachieving with a clubhouse full of injured and slumping stars, and now that things are finally starting to come together and everyone is getting healthy at the same time, the Twins are dismantling (almost literally, in the case of a number of their hapless Central Division rivals) the competition.
This year's club seems ferociously determined to put to rest last year's second-half swoon. In 2001 the Twins went 12-15 in July, and 3-9 after the All-Star break, during which their five game lead evaporated. This season the team has played its best baseball in July, beginning with a west coast road trip during which they took two of three games from Oakland and split a two-game series with Anaheim. After Monday night's drubbing of the White Sox, the Twins are now 10-2 since the break, and have won six straight on the road to increase the largest lead in club history.
The starting pitchers, led by a resurgent Eric Milton and the surprising Kyle Lohse, have been eating up innings, giving the overworked bullpen a much needed breather; the team earned run average in July is 3.80, and the return of Joe Mays and Brad Radke provide further reason for optimism. Milton is 3-1 with a 3.72 ERA in July, and Lohse--who is now, astonishingly, on pace to win 15 games--is 2-0 in the month with a 2.38 ERA.
Two of the guys who had the most frustration in the first half, Corey Koskie and David Ortiz, have been on fire since the All-Star break: Ortiz has been a monster, batting .375, with six home runs, 11 RBIs, and a .925 slugging percentage; Koskie is hitting .375 with a .500 on base percentage. Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, who carried the offense through the first couple months, have both been tearing it up as well, and the rookie tandem of Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr continues to surpass even the most wildly optimistic expectations. The team as a whole has hit .298 with 21 homeruns in the 12 games since the All-Star game.
Chicago, the Twins closest competition in the central, has been pathetic since the break, going 4-9 and losing any hope of catching the Twins. The amazing thing is that the two teams still have to meet each other 14 times, but an idiot can do the math; even the alleged feud between the Twins and White Sox--a pure media creation, by the way--can't obscure the fact that Chicago doesn't have a prayer. (Take away the sideshow of the beanball war and supposed bad blood, and the beat writers are left trying to write about meaningless baseball games.)
No doubt about it, the Twins have been blessed by a lousy division; they're now 27-14 against the Central, 33-27 versus everybody else. But, this is a team that at the moment, or certainly in the very near future, can match up with anybody in the league. They figured to be good, but right now, playing on a roll, the Twins have a real chance to put together one of the best seasons in team history. The club record for victories is 102, achieved by the 1965 World Series team, and with 61 games remaining reaching that would probably be a stretch. But the 95 wins of 1991's championship squad is clearly a modest goal, requiring a 35-26 record the rest of the way.
He doesn't have enough at bats to qualify, but Bobby Kielty's .451 on base percentage is second in the Major Leagues to Barry Bonds. Kielty's .986 on base plus slugging (.981) is fifth best in the AL. What a great problem Ron Gardenhire has, trying to find at bats for Kielty, the hard-nosed Mohr (.360 since the break), and phenom Michael Cuddyer.
Although it continues to get lost among all the other terrific stories in the Twins clubhouse, LaTroy Hawkins domination is perhaps the most encouraging development of the new regime. Hawkins has yet to give up a run in eight July appearances, and his ERA is now 1.38 in 41 games.
All Star catcher A.J. Pierzynski and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz have been scuffling in the second half. Pierzynski is hitting just .118 since the break, while Mientkiewicz's season-long struggles at the plate have continued; he's batting .211 since the All-Star game, and his slugging percentage continues to plummet.
Contraction Watch: Brewers are now 1-10 since the All-Star break, with a .223 team batting average. In its second season in Miller Park, Milwaukee is drawing just over 24,000 fans a game. The Twins are averaging 21,688 a date through 50 home games.
Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.
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