It was October 6th (or maybe, technically, October 7th) that I wrote a post crowning the 2009 AL Central Champion Twins. I'd just returned home from witnessing live, over 3 1/2 pulse-pounding hours, the most intense sporting event I'd ever seen. I vividly remember trying to sit down and type up a post fitting of the momentous occasion while my fingers still trembled from the excitement that had taken place just an hour before.
In the 12th inning of a roller coaster division tiebreaker between the Twins and Tigers, Alexi Casilla knocked in Carlos Gomez to clinch the AL Central title and earn his team a fifth trip to the postseason in eight years.
The celebration was necessarily somewhat subdued, as the Twins knew they'd be facing off against the well rested Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS less than 24 hours later in New York.
Last night's celebration was also subdued, but for different reasons. The Twins officially clinched their sixth AL Central title under Ron Gardenhire at 11:37 PM, and while the players stuck around to pop champagne in the clubhouse, they did so in a mostly empty stadium and (hopefully) held back knowing an early start awaited the next day.
Had the circumstances been different, the Twins surely would have gone all out in celebrating this remarkable season. They are on pace for one of the best second-half records in major-league history. They flat-out dominated the division, fending off a ferocious midsummer assault from their greatest rival and putting the nail in Chicago's coffin with a sweep at U.S. Cellular Field. The Twins boast legitimate candidates for both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young, and I'd be pretty surprised if Jim Thome's name didn't show up on a couple MVP ballots. (Speaking of Thome, you absolutely MUST read Joe Posnanski's cover story on him in the latest Sports Illustrated.)
The Twins could well finish with the best record in the major leagues, all while getting a combined total of one half-season from their elite closer and best hitter -- who also happen to be two of their three highest paid players.
I write this post celebrating the Twins' 2010 AL Central title on September 22nd. That's a full 14 days earlier than I did so last year, a fact that gives these Twins a distinct advantage over the '09 group -- beyond the more meaningful edges in talent and depth.
We'd be wise not to overplay the value of momentum. After all, last year's team won 17 of its last 21 regular season games and the 2006 club finished its season on an incredible high point; neither won a single playoff game.
Yet, this team has not lost consecutive games in four weeks. They possess legitimate front-line talent and excellent depth in the rotation, along with a bullpen that ranks as one of the league's most reliable. Where last year's Game 1 ALDS lineup featured Nick Punto as No. 9 hitter and Brendan Harris as DH, this year Ron Gardenhire figures to write in J.J. Hardy and Thome. And he'll more than likely be writing them in at Target Field, where his team has been ridiculously tough to beat since the All-Star break.
Oh, and the Twins will now have the opportunity to rest aching starters and set up their playoff rotation while the Rays and Yankees continue to battle for the AL East title and the valuable home field advantage that comes along with it.
Nothing is guaranteed. You don't even need to tell that to Twins fans, who are so accustomed to postseason failure that they can be excused for failing to grasp what good shape their club is in as October approaches.
The Twins have already established this as one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. How it ends will likely dictate the way we ultimately remember it. But, regardless of what happens in two weeks when the Twins step up to the national stage and try to shake a tenacious monkey off their back, it's been an awfully fun ride that's gotten us there.