Monday, October 11, 2004

Handing Out the Hardware

I woke up yesterday morning still in disbelief. It had been two days since I had sat in row 33 of left field and watched as Juan Rincon gave up a 3 run home run to tie a game that the Yankees would eventually win in extra innings. It is so strange how a season can just end in a moment. Baseball is a crazy game where an inch can make the difference between postseason glory and another early exit. After the game Saturday all that was left was for the players to pack their bags, say goodbyes and head out for the winter. There is no guarantee that the Twins will be back in the postseason next year with the emergence of Cleveland and Chicago still lurking. How the Twins handle the off-season and fill their needs will determine where they are this time next year. Later this week Twins Chatter will begin to look ahead to the off-season and what follows. Today we will hand out the hardware for this past season and give the Twins props where they deserve it.

MVT (Most Valuable Twin) -
Unlike last season when Shannon Stewart almost single handedly turned the Twin’s season around, this year the Twins had several players stand out. They never would have stuck around early in the year had it not been for Lew Ford’s hot hitting. He may have cooled off a little as the season progressed but he stayed around .300 all year. Justin Morneau provided a much-needed spark in the middle of the season and finished with 19 HR in just 280 at bats. He struggled at the end of the year and into the postseason though. Shannon Stewart provided a spark upon his return and Torii Hunter carried the Twins in big games and the playoffs. The Twins most valuable player has got to be Johan Santana. He not only had one of the most dominant second halves ever, he kept this team rolling along. He ended losing streaks and began winning ones. The Twins won when he was on the mound, period. He pitched in big games and battled right up to the very end. He will certainly win the American League CY Young but he is also the most valuable Twin.

Best Pitcher -
Since the MVT already went to Santana, who was also the best pitcher, we will spread the awards around a bit. Juan Rincon had a great year if you leave out his last appearance. Brad Radke did not get the recognition he deserved and may have been in consideration for the CY Young if he had more wins. This was his most consistent year by far. The Twins most valuable pitcher was Joe Nathan. The Twins didn’t know what they would get from Nathan, who had never been a closer before. He emerged and was more then the Twins could have hoped for with 44 saves and a 1.62 ERA. Without him the Twins would have been a second place ball club. He shut the door on the 9th inning all year.

Most Disappointing Pitcher -
Kyle Lohse came into the spring training as the third starter and went backwards from there. He never found consistency during the year. He would have a great start and then follow it with 3 bad ones. He would seem to be progressing then fall back into the same routine. All told, he lost 13 games with a 5.34 ERA and was the losing pitcher in the last game of the season for the Twins.

Most Disappointing Hitter -
Joe Mauer was the real deal when he played. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to play very often putting the Twins in the position of having to rely on Henry Blanco as the starting catcher. The Twins could have used Mauer in the postseason. Next year he gets another try and hopefully a healthy year.

Best Fielder
People talked up Doug Mientkiewicz when he was here but the best fielder on the team was always Torii Hunter. He changed the course of a game with his magnificent plays; with no regard for his own body. He used his glove to make amazing catches and his arm to throw out runners at the plate, all while still making the routine play.

Emerging Player Award -
Carlos Silva came out of nowhere to win 14 games; he struggled in the playoffs but held down the third starter spot all year after having started 1 game previously in his career. He also pitched 203 much needed innings for the club. The best hitter to emerge was Michael Cuddyer, who gives the team another option at second next year. He showed that he could adequately play the position at the end of the year. His bat also provided a little pop to the lineup.

Young Player of the Year
Usually this award would go to the rookie of the year but both Lew Ford and Justin Morneau played themselves out of that classification last year. Their seasons were just to good to ignore. Ford didn’t start the year with the club but made an immediate impact upon his call-up. He is the official player of Twins Chatter for good reason. Morneau came up and provided the power the lineup desperately craved. He was a different player then the one who came up last year. He also made great strides at first base and will be a cornerstone for years to come. Jesse Crain had a pretty good run out of the bullpen as well but his performance is not quite on par with the other two.

Other Awards
Batting Champ – Shannon Stewart .304
Homerun King – Corey Koskie 25
RBI King – Torii Hunter

Saves – Joe Nathan 44
Wins – Johan Santana 20
ERA – Santana 2.61
Strikeouts – Santana 265

It was a great year that unfortunately didn’t end the way many fans envisioned it. Every year new players struggle while others emerge. The Twins will battle for their 4th consecutive division title in 2005. Right now is the time to bask in their accomplishments from 2004 that put the Twins in a position to give the Yankees a run for their money.


Joy in the Journey

Well, it has been over 24 hours since the Twins’ season came to such an abrupt end, and I’m finally ready for a little closure. As I said the other day, the team’s ALDS loss to the Yankees was a terrible way to end what was an extremely entertaining season. However, because those four games are still so fresh in my mind, I’m going to take the opportunity to give a quick post-series recap of all four games, including some extended thought pertaining to Game 4 (which you should most definitely read). The guys did work extremely hard for 162 games to get to the playoffs, so it would be a shame to just ignore the fruits of that labor.

Game 1: Twins 2, Yankees 0
Round two of Twins vs. Yankees began just as it did a year ago, with the Twins taking the first game of the series in New York. But while the result was similar, the circumstances were far different. This time around, the Twins were actually favored to win Game 1, due in large part to the season-long efforts of one man: Johan K. Santana. Johan is the reason no one wanted to play the Twins before the playoffs began.

Things didn’t go as smoothly as the Twins would have liked, even though it all worked out in the end. Santana was not sharp (which was disconcerting because he had been very sharp for almost four straight months) but battled through seven innings and found a way to get it done. Defense was the key to victory. The Twins turned a playoff-record five double plays, and Hunter turned in two spectacular plays—throwing out a runner at home in the second and robbing Alex Rodriguez of a sure double in the eighth. What little offense the Twins were able to scratch across was enough. Jones had a solo homer in the sixth, and Stewart drove in Cuddyer with a single earlier in the game.

The series outlook was much more positive in 2004 than it was in ’03. Instead of being handed Game 1, the Twins simply outplayed the Yankees. Hopes of a series win seemed very realistic.

Game 2: Yankees 7, Twins 6 (12 innings)
Game 2 was one of the most disappointing games in franchise history and will live in infamy forever. Brad Radke did not pitch well at all and it seemed lucky that he held the Yankees to 5 runs in 6 and 1/3. The Twins hit John Lieber hard early, but in true Twins fashion, allowed him to settle down in the middle innings. A Twins loss seemed extremely likely.

Then, “The Rally” occurred. Against all odds, the Twins managed to manufacture two runs against Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera, the key hit being Corey Koskie’s ground-rule double off Rivera. Koskie’s at-bat was one of the best any Twin has had all season long, but Jason Kubel followed it up with one of the worst at-bats of the season (he struck out on three pitches) and the Twins were only able to tie the game at 5. The Twins’ relief corps was excellent for the next 4 innings, and hope was restored when Hunter hit a solo homer in the 12th. But Gardehire elected not to trust his bullpen (i.e. Jesse Crain) and Nathan (predictably) ran out of gas in his third inning of work. Two straight walks, and A-Rod double, and a sac fly later, the Twins had allowed the Yankees back into the series.

No matter what anybody says, this series was lost in the 12th inning of Game 2. There is no doubt about it.

Game 3: Yankees 8, Twins 4
The third game of this year’s short-lived playoff run was little more than an old-fashioned Yankee blowout. Carlos Silva did not stand much of a chance against the Yankee All-Stars, and he was touched up for 6 runs in 5 innings. The Twins couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented them early in the game against Kevin Brown, and it was only a matter of time before the Yankee bats erupted. There simply wasn’t a ton to cheer about for Twins fans.

Game 4: Yankees 6, Twins 5
Game 4 was the epitome of this series for the Twins. The game looked to be in the bag. Johan Santana pitched his heart out for five innings and held the Yankees to just one run. The Twins managed to score five runs off Javier Vazquez, culminated by Lew Ford’s clutch two-run double in the seventh. With a 5-1 lead and Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan ready to finish the game, Sunday’s game seemed like a near certainty.

Unfortunately, nothing is certain against the Yankees. Rincon picked the exact wrong time for his worst outing of the year. The slider he hung to Sierra (who proceeded to hit the game-tying three-run homer) was about as bad a pitch as you can throw. Nathan pitched admirably through the 10th, but it was only a matter of time until the Yankees would win, especially with Rivera in the game. A-Rod’s double and subsequent stolen base set the stage for Kyle Lohse’s “wild pitch” and the season was over.

I have yet to rant about Game 4 in this space, so I’m going to do it right now. First off, I agreed with Gardenhire’s decision to take out Johan after five. He was obviously laboring, and there was little point in sending him out for the sixth. He pitched his ass off for five innings on three days’ rest, and that was all we could ask.

I’ve been a big Grant Balfour supporter all year, so it was great to see him prove himself on a national stage. Grant has terrific stuff and should be a stalwart in the Twins’ bullpen for many years to come. You can never have too many tall, 95 mph-throwing Australian righthanded relief pitchers.

While I was disappointed with Juan Rincon’s terrible outing, I understand that “crap” happens sometimes. Juan has been great in that role all season, and there is no doubt that he should have been out there. Other than Nathan, there was no relief pitcher I trusted more than Rincon this year. He caught a bad break (Sheffield’s infield single) and hung a slider big time, but those things happen. Rincon will hopefully put this all behind him, because he’s a key part of this team next year.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been surprisingly calm for most of this post. I’ve said what needed to be said in a relatively objective tone of voice, more often than not giving the Twins the benefit of the doubt. That all ends right now.

On Saturday evening, Pat Borders committed one of the most heinous crimes a catcher can commit: he did not make an effort to block a ball in the dirt with the go-ahead run on third. Words cannot truly express the anger I felt at that moment, so you’ll have to instead imagine the sound of my grinding teeth and my scores of Borders-directed expletives. As someone who played catcher almost exclusively for 8 years (5th grade through high school), it was drilled into my head day after day that you HAVE to block the ball with the game on the line. HAVE TO. There can be absolutely NO exceptions. A good catcher will obviously try and block every ball in the dirt with runners on base, but when you see that tying or go-ahead run on third, it becomes a matter of pride. You repeat the mantra over and over in your head: ball in the dirt, block. Ball in the dirt, block. Ball in the dirt, block. When you call a breaking ball, that mantra becomes even louder, because the odds are much better that a curveball will break into the dirt. Here’s what I was always taught: you have to expect that the ball will be in the dirt. If there is any doubt whatsoever, you shoot your knees and block. There can be no hesitation, no exceptions. You sacrifice every square inch of your body to save that run. It’s as simple as that.

It doesn’t take a former catcher to realize that Borders committed the ultimate act of baseball depravity, but I hope you can now understand my anger at the situation. The worst part of the whole thing isn’t that Borders allowed the pitch to get past him, it’s that he didn’t even make an effort to block it!! That was simply INEXCUSABLE! How long has Borders been catching? 25, probably 30 years? How could you have such an egregious lack of judgment at such a crucial time? And it cost the Twins the game and possibly their season. As I’ve said before an absolutely terrible way to end a great season. A washed-up catcher who played in a handful of games in September kept the the Twins from a possible Game 5. It’s a freaking crying shame.

Thanks for indulging me on that little rant. It was something I had to get off my chest, and I actually feel much better now.

Even though the Twins’ season is over, it doesn’t mean Twins Chatter is going anywhere. John and I will continue to write through the entire off-season, so be sure and make Twins Chatter one of your main stops for Twins-related material. We’ll have a run of season-ending posts in the coming weeks, and after that, we’ll probably settle into a regular schedule of 2-3 new posts a week. We’ll also be making some drastic aesthetic improvements to the site this winter, so if you have any suggestions, be sure to let us know what they are. As always, if you have any comments on today’s post (or the Twins in general) drop them below or send me an e-mail at Thanks, and good night.

-Ryan Maus