Guess who's nipping at another AL Central title? With an impressive homestand vs. the ChiSox, the Twins closed the gap to a minuscule 1/2 game deficit. Winning games in their customary small-ball fashion, Minnesota's tried and true recipe mixes a quart of clutch hitting, a dash of defense, a pinch of quality starting pitching and a bevy of bullpen beef. Even the most optimistic Twins fans didn't fully believe that 2008 could end with a playoff run after losing their staff ace (Johan Santana) and their clubhouse leader (Torii Hunter), not to mention trading away their best young pitcher (Matt Garza). The lineup is patchwork at best relying heavily on journeymen Mike Lamb & Adam Everett, hitting conundrums Jason Kubel & Delmon Young, spare parts Craig Monroe, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris & Mike Redmond, and rookies Carlos Gomez, Alexei Casilla, Denard Span and Brian Buscher. The infusion of this new life from the exciting youngsters portends greatness in the coming years.
Read all of those names again. How exactly has this assemblage of talent remained in a heated race with the White Sox and Tigers? Two players mean more to this lineup than any other two players on any team: the M&M twins, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. A win doesn't go by that one, if not both of them play a pivotal role in putting runs on the board. Both sit squarely in the top 10 of AL hitters. Morneau has donned the magician's cape for most of the season, proving his MVP season in 2006 was no fluke. Besides knocking in an AL second-best 87 RBIs, he's pulled rabbit after rabbit out of his hat, hitting .347 with men on and two outs, and an even more impressive .376 with runners in scoring position. His counterpart, on top of managing one of the most inexperienced staffs in the game to surprising results, has proven to be one of the game's most reliable hitters. Though his power numbers don't match that of this year's HR Derby champ, he still gets style points for delivering when needed, raking pitchers at a .386 clip with 2 out, RISP. The hometown hero means the world to the team and the city, or rather, Twin Cities.
Obviously there's more to it than just these two All-Stars. The Twins break the norm on offensive expectations. Despite tying for the Majors' 2nd to last team HR total (76), they rank 7th in the Majors in runs scored. They lead the Majors in bunt singles, doubling the next closest team. They strike out the 4th least of any team in the Majors while boasting the 3rd best batting average (.278). And perhaps the most stunning team stat, the Twins hit a sparkling .317 with runners in scoring position, 30 points higher than the next team. Call it what you will - luck, skill, Puckett providence, but they're certainly playing with a level of confidence that competitive Twins squads in the past lacked.
Lest I forget, I haven't even mentioned the most dynamic piece of the playoff puzzle, the piece just found lying in the box, the piece that fits right in the middle that connects everything else - a true ace. With Santana's absence, the team placed unfair expectations on Francisco Liriano, fresh off Tommy John surgery, to pick up the mantle and dazzle like he did pre-injury. It came as no surprise, unfortunately, that he couldn't get on track right away and lost confidence. Relegated to Triple AAA to find his groove, lo and behold, it happened. Though a little peeved at management's foot dragging calling him back to the big show, he channeled his frustration into dominant pitching, going 10-0 (2.67 ERA) in his last 11 starts. Sunday, he takes the mound again, a new pitcher with a new task, leading this late assault on the Central standings.
The Twins will grow by leaps and bounds over the next two months. A third month, October baseball, is in their grasp. It's going to be riveting watching it unfold.