July 5, 2006
21 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Back
After winning 21 out of 23 games to improbably claw their way back into the playoff picture, the clock struck midnight on the Twins last night as they lost a second straight game for the first time sine June 7. It's truly amazing--along with confusing, frustrating, and any number of other things--how quickly momentum can change in baseball.
One day a team is among the worst in the league and even the most diehard fans are about ready to call it a season. Then suddenly that same team can't lose, winning every series for a month while sweeping five teams in the process. And then, just as suddenly, that same team loses two in a row to a last-place team that had twice as many losses as wins.
Throughout the Twins' amazing run I've served the role as punchbowl turd by curbing enthusiasm a bit, and this is why. Winning 21 of 23 is fantastic and has without question restored my obsession with the Twins' season. However, the problem is that because of how strong the division is and how big of a hole the Twins dug for themselves early, they basically had to keep winning for the rest of the year.
In normal circumstances it's certainly not the end of the world when a team that has been playing extremely well loses a series to the Royals, but in the Twins' case they simply don't have the margin for error to live with many setbacks. The All-Star break arrives after the next series, and even with all the progress they've made over the past month the Twins are still 8.5 games out of a playoff spot.
The White Sox have won 63 percent of their games dating back to the beginning of last season, and if they simply play .500 baseball for the remainder of this year they'll finish with 94 wins. For the Twins to top that, they'd have to finish 49-30 (.620). If you think the Twins can catch the Tigers instead, then they'll have to go 51-28 (.646) if Detroit wins half of its remaining games.
In other words, the Twins will have to be a great team for an entire half-season in order to make the playoffs, and even doing that doesn't guarantee them anything. After all, Detroit and Chicago could very well play .550 or even .600 baseball going forward, in which case the Twins have almost no chance of catching them.
The Twins picked a really bad year to "experiment" with guys like Tony Batista and Juan Castro, and picked the wrong division to get out of the gates slowly. In most other years and in most other divisions the Twins would have completely recovered from their slow start and would be in prime shape to make the playoffs. In 2006 and the AL Central, they're in really rough shape.
Great teams certainly drop games to horrible teams on occasion, but the point is that winning 21 of 23 didn't give the Twins the breathing room necessary to stumble very often. That's a difficult reality to deal with when there are 79 games remaining, but that's the task ahead when you must catch one of the two best teams in baseball in order to make the postseason.
In winning 21 of 23 games, the Twins gained a grand total of 3.5 games in their quest for a playoff spot. In losing two straight to the Royals, they quickly handed two of those games right back. The sloppy baserunning, rally-killing double plays, and shaky pitching made sudden returns after a month-long absence, and a couple more ugly losses would erase all the gains the Twins made and then some.
At this point in the season the Twins don't have the luxury of being able to take their foot off the gas like they did against the Royals. As depressing as it may sound given how well they played for so long, the Twins need to head into the All-Star break with a series win over the Rangers or they might be facing a double-digit deficit going into the second half.