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This God, This... Gardenhire

You really have to love Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. If a team is going to take on the character and personality of its leader, a Minnesota baseball fan could hardly ask for a better guy in the manager's office than Gardenhire, a genuinely pleasant man who actually seems to enjoy his time at the ballpark, as well as his time away from it. Most days he even appears to relish the daily give-and-take with the media and the fans. All year he has dutifully acknowledged his respect for former manager Tom Kelly, even as he has spent the season skirting Kelly's long and very dark shadow and doing things exactly his own way. Yet if you place any stock in the dozens of emails I've received over the last six months, and the usual boneheaded free-for-all on the various team forums on the Internet, there are legions of fans that actually believe that the Twins managed to win this year despite Gardenhire, rather than because of any moves he did or didn't make. Right up to the end of September I was hearing from people every week who were still willing to believe that the Twins would have won the Central Division by 30 or more games if Kelly were still at the helm. This team, more than one reader suggested, would have easily surpassed 100 victories if it weren't for the egregious blunders of the rookie manager. There were even fans who insisted that the team's rash of injuries were somehow the fault of Gardenhire and his staff. Even first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz--in a much publicized article in the Washington Post--pooh-poohed Gardenhire's role in the team's success. Characteristically, Mientkiewicz later reversed his opinion when he told the Pioneer Press's Tom Powers, "I don't think [Gardenhire] gets as much credit as he deserves. Everybody on the team went down at one point or another. He kept us together." Which only proves that Mientkiewicz is right about half of the time--it's too bad he can't hit as well as he can waffle.

I've certainly quibbled with Gardenhire's decisions from time to time, but all of that stuff looks like so much nonsense in the light of the Twins' division series victory over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics. You can go ahead and consider Gardenhire the luckiest man in the world, but how then do you account for the fact that he rode a hobbled horse to a 94-win season and a spot in the American League Championship Series?

As gripping, and to be honest, as unexpected as the Twins victory over the A's in the Divisional Series was, the real story beyond all the tangled plot lines and excruciating drama was Gardenhire's performance in the biggest games of his life. His decision to start Brad Radke in game one was heavily scrutinized and widely derided; conventional wisdom said that Rick Reed, the team's best and most consistent starter down the stretch, deserved the nod. Radke, of course, proceeded to pitch the team through the abysmal opening innings of game one (during which the Twins coughed up four unearned runs behind him) and gutted out five innings to get the win. That game was merely prelude to the veteran's spectacular performance in the pivotal fifth game, in which he dueled Oakland lefty Mark Mulder and held the A's to one run in six and-two-thirds innings. For the series he was 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA.

Gardenhire is not a guy who gets terribly uptight; watching him chuckle in the dugout as his team played like beer league yahoos in the first couple innings of that first game was one of the most encouraging signs in the series. All season, the Twins have followed their manager's lead, and game one was a classic example, as they settled down and once again fought their way back to scratch out a victory on Oakland's turf.

Gardenhire's choice of rookie Michael Cuddyer as his right field starter in the series also raised plenty of eyebrows, including mine. Cuddyer spent most of the season in AAA Edmonton, and hit only .259 in 112 at bats with the Twins. Switch hitter Bobby Kielty's on base percentage alone was almost 100 points higher than Cuddyer's, and he hit .291 for the season.

Cuddyer, of course, rewarded Gardenhire's vote of confidence by going 2-3 with a run, an RBI, and a walk in the first game, and the rookie was 5-13 with three walks in the series.

In the fifth game, with the Twins season on the line, and the left handed Mulder on the hill for Oakland, Gardenhire shook things up for the first time in the postseason, starting switch-hitter Denny Hocking at second base for Luis Rivas, and right-handed Matthew LeCroy for David Ortiz at designated hitter. Both moves paid off immediately, as LeCroy singled and later scored the first run on a two-out single by Hocking in the second inning. In the third LeCroy singled home Cristian Guzman for the Twins second run. For the game Hocking and LeCroy were a combined 4-7 with two RBIs and a run scored. The addition of those two right-handed bats in the line-up for the Twins was huge. It also wasn't a particularly characteristic move by Gardenhire. As they have all year, Minnesota's left-handed hitters struggled against the A's lefthander, going 0-14 in the game five victory. The right-handed bats in the line-up, however, battered Mulder for nine hits in fourteen at bats. And the Twins lefties finally got their shot when Oakland manager Art Howe brought on his closer, the right-handed Billy Koch, to try to keep the game close in the ninth. Koch walked Dustan Mohr, who swings from the right side, and a batch of lefthanders gave the Twins all the insurance runs they would need: A.J. Pierzynski hit a two-run homer, and then, with two out, Guzman reached on an infield single, Corey Koskie walked, and David Ortiz (brought on as a pinch hitter for LeCroy in the eighth) doubled home Guzman for the fifth and ultimately decisive run.

 

Even Gardenhire's pitching changes demonstrated the consistent and occasionally frightening confidence he has shown in his players all year. Radke gave up a leadoff single to Jerome Dye in the seventh, but then struck out David Justice and got Mark Ellis to fly out to shallow center. He looked like he was strong enough for at least another inning, but Gardenhire went to the bullpen for J.C. Romero, who got the Twins out of the inning. After Romero struck out Adam Piatt for the second out of the eighth, LaTroy Hawkins was brought in to face the likely AL MVP, Miguel Tejada. Hawkins had done much this season to resurrect what had been an erratic career to date, but this was unquestionably the biggest match-up of his life. Ray Durham, who had singled earlier in the inning off Romero, represented the tying run at first. Tejada fell behind 0-2 to Hawkins, fouled off a couple pitches, took a couple balls to even the count, fouled off two more fastballs, and finally struck out swinging.

When closer Eddie Guardado induced conniptions and heart palpitations by surrendering a single, double, and three-run homer to bring the A's back within one run with one out in the bottom of the ninth, I never had any doubt that Gardenhire intended to leave him out there to finish the job one way or the other. Eddie was supposed to be in the game at that point; he'd been doing it all year, and he'd played a huge role in getting the Twins to where they were, even if at the moment that was the brink of elimination. Yet even when Randy Velarde singled with two outs to bring the winning run to the plate for Oakland it was clear that Gardenhire wasn't going to budge. And when Guardado finally got Durham to pop up in foul territory to Hocking for the final out, Gardenhire--like every other Twins fan on the planet--breathed a huge sigh of relief and gave his closer a big bear hug. He'd later admit that, sure, Guardado had almost killed him, but win or lose, Eddie was still his guy. That sort of faith and confidence has proved to be more infectious than athlete's foot in the Twin's clubhouse this year, and it was nice to see Gardenhire pass his first big test with such flying colors.

AS THE OAKLAND series demonstrated--as well as every other series so far this October--there's really no predicting how these postseason games are going to turn out. But that doesn't mean Twins fans shouldn't be very excited at the prospects of this team heading into the AL Championship series against Anaheim. Going into this postseason, the Angels were the one team that presented the most appealing match-up for the Twins, and Anaheim's thorough dismantling of a diminished Yankee team really doesn't change that. The Angels were the only postseason American League team that the Twins had any real success against at all this year, as they went 5-4 in the season series.

The two teams really are comparable in a lot of ways, but I still like Minnesota's lineup and pitching staff a whole lot more than Anaheim's, particularly in this series. Obviously much has been made about the Twins shortcomings against left-handed pitching, deservedly so, but as far as southpaws go, Anaheim doesn't have much beyond workhorse Jarred Washburn (18-6 with a 3.15 ERA this year) to throw at them. Their one lefty in the bullpen for the Yankee series was Scott Schoenweis, who happens to be one of the few lefthanders the Twins actually battered this year; in eight-and-two-thirds innings pitched against the Twins this season, Schoenweis had a 9.35 ERA. Washburn was considerably tougher on Minnesota, going 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in three starts. Still, the Angels rotation for the Twins series as its presently set up has Washburn going in game three against Eric Milton, which means that, barring a game seven, Minnesota will only have to face the Anaheim ace one time.

 

The Angels offense was the big story against the Yankees; they hit .376 as a team against New York, with a .624 slugging percentage, which was more than enough to obscure the fact that they had a team ERA of over six runs a game in the series, and that was with Washburn starting two of the four games.

The 2002 Twins hit more home runs than the Angels, but scored fewer runs, owing largely to Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia's willingness to play a more National League-style of ball; the Angels run a lot more than the Twins--and with a whole lot more success--and also execute more sacrifice bunts. Scioscia also is more disposed to straight platooning than Gardenhire is. Like the Twins, the Angels are an aggressive, fundamentally sound team, and they have guys who can execute and hurt you from top to bottom of their batting order. Scioscia is actually more similar as a manager to Tom Kelly than Gardenhire is.

While both teams pulled off almost wholly unexpected first round upsets, the Twins victory also gained them the advantage of home field advantage for the series. And now, with four underdog teams rolling into the second round, the Twins prospects are better than could have been imagined two short weeks ago, when there were three 100-victory teams (and a defending champion with 98 wins) standing between them and a World Series title. At this point they've obviously proved they can beat anyone (except for the one team they no longer have to beat, the Yankees), and I swear to you that I'll no longer be surprised by anything they accomplish from here on out.


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