July 27, 2006

Tied! (Sort Of)

Late last month, with the Twins still 10 games out of a postseason spot despite winning 14 out of 16 games, I wrote about how depressing it was that they failed to make up any ground on the White Sox while winning nearly every day for three weeks. I simply didn't like the Twins' chances of making up a double-digit deficit against the defending champs in half a season.

Little did I know at the time that not only could the Twins do it, they'd do it within a month. The Twins improbably followed up winning 14 out of 16 by winning 20 of their next 26. Just as importantly, the White Sox finally went through a rough patch, dropping 10 out of 12 since the All-Star break. Here's how the Wild Card standings looked through June 7, compared to what they look like this morning:

JUNE 7          W      L       GB        JULY 26         W      L       GB
Chicago 36 22 --- New York 59 40 ---
Boston 33 23 2.0 MINNESOTA 59 41 0.5
Toronto 33 25 3.0 Chicago 59 41 0.5
Cleveland 29 29 7.0 Toronto 56 45 4.0
Oakland 28 31 8.5 Los Angeles 52 49 8.0
Seattle 28 33 9.5 Oakland 52 49 8.0
Los Angeles 27 32 9.5 Texas 51 51 9.5
Baltimore 27 33 10.0 Seattle 49 52 11.0
MINNESOTA 25 33 11.0 Baltimore 46 56 14.5

After beginning the season at a lifeless 25-33 (.431), the Twins have gone 34-8 (.810) over the past 49 days. In doing so they went from 11 games out of a playoff spot to within a half-game of the Wild Card leaders, leap-frogging seven teams in the process. What's especially amazing about their run is that within those 42 games was a three-game losing streak that involved two losses to the lowly Royals.

(Much like the Twins since June 8, Carlos Silva had a hard time cooling off yesterday.)

Surrounding those three losses near the end of the first half, the Twins have gone an utterly ridiculous 34-5 (.872). Their climb up the standings has been so fast and so relentless that it's been hard to fully appreciate how good they've been. Fortunately, today's off day provides that opportunity. Unfortunately, there's a three-game series against the MLB-leading Tigers waiting Friday.

If only for dramatic purposes, it would have been nice of the Yankees to lose last night so the Twins sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, would have meant something other than both teams being tied at a half-game behind New York. Of course, even that's not much of a buzz kill now, not with Francisco Liriano taking the mound Friday, Brad Radke following him Saturday, and Johan Santana up Sunday.

Those three pitchers were on the mound for exactly two-thirds of the Twins' amazing 42-game stretch, combining to go 20-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 28 starts. Over that same span, Joe Nathan appeared in half of the Twins' games, saving 14 wins with a 1.13 ERA and 36-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Setup men Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, and Pat Neshek combined for a 1.72 ERA in 62.2 innings over that stretch.

The pitching (and defense) has been fantastic, but the lineup has been as big a driving force behind the turnaround. The Twins hit .305 with a .372 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage over the past 42 games, which is incredible considering they were hitting a measly .268/.327/.396 prior to the run. While the Twins limited opponents to 3.4 runs per game since June 8, they've scored an average of 5.7 runs per game.

Much like Santana, Liriano, Radke, and Nathan carrying the pitching staff, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau put the offense on their backs since June 8. Mauer hit .381/.475/.545 with 25 RBIs and 24 runs in 36 games, while Morneau made that look downright pedestrian by hitting .402/.434/.768 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in 42 games.

(Justin went BOOM for the 16th time in 42 games to finish off the White Sox.)

Nick Punto set the table for them by hitting .333/.420/.442 and Jason Bartlett hit .336/.420/.459 at the bottom of the lineup, all while turning the infield defense from horrible to outstanding. Slotted between Mauer and Morneau, Michael Cuddyer hit .261/.351/.447 with six homers and 35 RBIs, while Rondell White returned from the dead to hit .288/.365/.519 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 16 games.

Even Torii Hunter (.274/.374/.453) was great before heading to the disabled list after 30 games, and Jason Tyner has taken up right where he left off by hitting .353/.389/.373 as his replacement in center field. Jason Kubel's bum knees have kept him on the bench more than anyone would like, but when in the lineup he hit .302 with six homers and 20 RBIs in 30 games.

Add it all up and you get a team that went from being out-scored by 42 runs in the first 58 games of the season to out-scoring their opponents by 97 runs in the next 42 games. It's no coincidence that the winning started almost immediately after Juan Castro and Tony Batista were let go, but as perhaps the world's biggest proponent of those moves, not even I expected them to lead to something like this.

What the Twins have done in winning 81 percent of their games over a quarter of a season is beyond remarkable and in doing so they've put themselves in position to potentially win the World Series in a year many--including myself at times--left them for dead. The long road ahead is evident by still having to look up at the Yankees (and sideways at the White Sox) in the standings, but it's tough to put much of anything past the Twins at this point.

With five off days left in the final two months, Santana, Liriano, and Radke may be able to start two-thirds of the remaining games and there are 11 dates with the Royals left on the schedule. The rest of the AL should be very afraid. Hell, if they do to the Tigers this weekend what they did to the White Sox in Chicago, the Twins will be just 5.5 games out of first place in the division.

("You guys see that train up ahead? You may want to get off the tracks.")

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