Those who believe this 2009 Twins team does not compare favorably to the 96-victory team of three years ago need to look closer.
The Twins must continue a late-season hot streak with another victory over Detroit today in order to advance to the World Series tournament for the fifth time in this decade.
They last participated in 2006 -- and went out in a shocking three games against the underdog Oakland A's.
Mention the '06 club and this bunch in the same sentence and the quick response from most Twins followers would be, "There's no comparison.''
The '06 Twins were 96-66 -- one game behind New York for the American League's best record. They had the Cy Young Award winner in Johan Santana, the MVP in Justin Morneau and a first-time batting champion in Joe Mauer.
The '09 Twins and Detroit are tied at 86-76. Today's winner will finish with the fifth-best record in the American League.
On the surface, the quick answer is accurate: No comparison.
On closer look, there isn't as much to choose between the team that finished with four hot months in 2006 and the team that used three hot weeks to get into today's tiebreaker.
The '06 Twins opened the playoffs with Santana, the league's best pitcher, but after that it was rookie Boof Bonser in Game 2 and Brad Radke (with a fracture in his right shoulder) in Game 3. And a Game 4 would have seen Carlos Silva (5.94 ERA) on the mound.
The current No. 1 starter is Scott Baker, but don't call him an "ace.'' He needs to dominate in extra-big games -- starting today against the Tigers -- to gain that description.
If the Twins were to advance, the starters against the Yankees would be rookie Brian Duensing in Game 1, Nick Blackburn in Game 2 and Carl Pavano in Game 3.
Don't laugh. That might be better than the three starters Gardenhire had to follow Santana three years ago.
The '06 bullpen was deep and effective. The six guys they would take into a Yankees series aren't world-beaters -- righthanders Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch, lefthanders Jose Mijares, Ron Mahay and Francisco Liriano -- but they can get some outs in front of closer Joe Nathan.
As for the lineups, Morneau entered the '06 playoffs in a home run slump but was still driving in runs. This season, the Twins have played without him since Sept. 13 -- by coincidence, the date on which they started the current 16-4 run.
The '06 infield had a veteran in Luis Castillo and a pair of Piranhas in Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. The '09 infield has a veteran in Orlando Cabrera and a pair of Piranhas in Punto and Matt Tolbert.
The starting outfield in the '06 playoffs was Michael Cuddyer in right, Torii Hunter in center and Rondell White in left. The outfield today will be Jason Kubel in right, Denard Span in center and Delmon Young in left.
You want some heresy? Span brings a different game than Hunter, but what he does as a leadoff man is almost as important as Hunter's power as a No. 6 hitter.
Gardenhire's season-ending DH platoon of Jason Tyner and Phil Nevin in '06 was as unimpressive as today's choice of Jose Morales or Brendan Harris.
There are assets that favor the '09 Twins -- namely:
Joe Mauer is a batting champion again, but he's gone from 13 home runs in '06 to 28 in his five-month '09 season. Cuddyer had those 109 RBI in '06, but all Twins fans know they have never seen this brick of a man as dangerous as he is right now.
Kubel was hobbled and unproductive three years ago; he has 27 home runs and 102 RBI today. Young is suddenly a ball-masher, in stark contrast to poor White, who by 2006 couldn't catch up to a big-league fastball.
No comparison with '06?
Actually, this club at this moment would compare favorably with the '06 Twins, if only Baker would show up today and pitch like an ace -- not a Johan, but at least an ace.
Of course, the smart alecks would say the Twins merely put themselves in position to suffer the ultimate comparison to their '06 counterparts: three and out.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org