Twins fulfilled expectations with adaptability

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2010 - 6:14 AM

The 2010 Twins became baseball origami. Folded and twisted by fate, they emerged as something beautiful.

That's what this long, trying, injury-filled, slump-interrupted season produced: A baseball version of beauty, whether defined by Joe Mauer's lyrical swing or Target Field's atmospheric lights; Jim Thome's downtown-bound home runs or Michael Cuddyer's unexpectedly necessary jai alai scoops at first base; or merely the inspiration derived from watching men of disparate ages and backgrounds become, however temporarily, one cohesive and resilient organism.

The season began amid immense expectations, with manager Ron Gardenhire joking that an escalating payroll and goals were causing him stomach distress. It began with perfect weather in Anaheim on Opening Day, and, surprisingly, more perfect weather on the day Target Field opened -- April 12, 2010.

The Twins beat the Boston Red Sox 5-2 that day. Carl Pavano earned the victory and, asked how good the Twins could be, he said: "I think we're great."

And they were. Early and then late, and without two of their three best players, they often were great.

Anticipating immense Target Field revenues, the Twins' bosses increased the payroll to near $100 million over the winter, signing second baseman Orlando Hudson and Thome, re-signing Pavano and trading for shortstop J.J. Hardy. They also signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract that served notice that the Twins were now The Little Engine That Should.

Winning was expected. The manner in which they won was not.

Overcoming adversity

On March 6, All-Star closer Joe Nathan threw a pitch in a spring training game and grabbed his elbow. He has yet to throw another.

On July 7, All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau slid into second base in Toronto and took a knee to the head. He has not played since.

Along with Mauer, Nathan and Morneau were two-thirds of the Twins' perennial All-Star troika. Somehow, the Twins played their best without them.

"I think we had it in our mind over the winter that we wanted to get better, and set ourselves up to try to get deeper in the playoffs," Gardenhire said late Tuesday night, as workers prepared the clubhouse for the Twins' clinching celebration. "So we added some depth, which has really shown up because of our injuries.

"It's not easy when you lose a Morneau. But these guys don't worry about it. You can't cry about what you don't have. You just have to play."

On July 10 in Detroit, the Twins lost 7-4 to the Tigers. Their record was 45-42, marking the first time they had been only three games over .500 since April 14.

On Sunday morning, July 11, Gardenhire strode into the clubhouse and made a short, impassioned speech that marked the turning point of the season. For one player. "The speech that 'Skip' gave us going into the break, the one in Detroit, got us on a roll," Pavano said.

Isn't that a wonderful story? Manager elevates struggling team. Here's how first baseman Michael Cuddyer remembers it: "Well, honestly, I don't," he said.

What does that mean, that Pavano invested faith in a moment Cuddyer forgot? "I guess it means," Cuddyer said, "that Carl takes stuff to heart."

Cuddyer laughed and shook his head, which is probably the best way to analyze this team.

They didn't employ a true ace. They didn't have a contender for the Cy Young or American League Most Valuable Player awards.

They used Jon Rauch, a journeyman middle reliever, as their closer to replace Nathan for four months. They promoted third baseman Danny Valencia at midseason, not knowing whether he could hold the job. Only one player -- left fielder Delmon Young -- had a career year.

So while Pavano remembered Gardenhire's speech in Detroit, other players remembered other turning points.

Like the night of Aug. 17, when Thome, facing his former team, beat the White Sox with a two-run homer in the 10th inning, the first walk-off homer at Target Field.

Or the night of July 23, when Brian Duensing, a mild-mannered reliever with mild stuff, entered and stabilized the starting rotation.

Or the night of July 16. On July 15, the first game after the All-Star break, the Twins lost 8-7 to the White Sox, falling 4 1/2 games behind Chicago in the American League Central Division standings.

On the 16th, Francisco Liriano beat the Sox 7-4. From the point, Liriano would re-establish himself as one of the league's best pitchers, and the Twins would make history.

Through Wednesday's game, the Twins are 46-18 since the All-Star break, the best record in the majors during that time.

They also are 52-25 at Target Field, where the deep fences and swirling winds depressed their hitters' power numbers but protected their efficient pitching staff.

Depth becomes a strength

While their injuries -- and Mauer's first-half slump -- gave the Twins the aura of overachievers, in fact the team, buttressed by a remarkably aggressive front office, proved impressively deep, talented and balanced.

Entering Wednesday, the Twins were tied for the American League lead in team batting average. They ranked fourth in slugging percentage, second in on-base percentage, first in triples, first in batting average with runners in scoring position, second in doubles, second in team ERA, first in bullpen ERA, first in fewest walks allowed, second in shutouts, third in complete games and second in fielding percentage.

After Nick Blackburn won his 10th game Wednesday, the Twins have six starting pitchers with at least 10 victories, and they have three relievers -- Rauch, Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes -- with 20 or more saves this season.

"It's pretty impressive, what we've accomplished," Cuddyer said. "I don't even know if anybody can explain it. We just play well together. Our lineup is so deep, you don't rely on anybody having career years."

Listen to national broadcasters praise the Twins, and they often cite the Twins' home-grown roster and scrappy style.

Those who watch more closely know the Twins no longer rely on the steal and other small-ball devices, and their ability to steal valuable players from other teams or the free-agent market is what has set them apart.

They traded a pitching prospect named Johan Pino for Pavano in the summer of 2009; Pavano became one of the most prominent reasons for consecutive division titles.

After the White Sox traded Thome to the Dodgers last season, and the Dodgers used him only as a pinch hitter, the Twins took a chance on the aging slugger, signing him to a one-year deal worth a paltry (by his standards) $1.5 million.

Thome became baseball's best bargain, hitting 25 home runs thus far to pass Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire on the career list, and prompting Gardenhire to compare him to Babe Ruth.

Thome looked the part, smashing home runs that bounced on the plaza, then jogging slowly around the bases.

In those moments Thome proved emblematic of his gimpy-yet-game team, whether because he was savoring every step, or because his knees really hurt.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

  • BY JIM SOUHAN

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