The 163-game marathon: successful disappointment

The thing that I tell you now
It may not go over well
It may not be photo-op
In the way that I spell it out

But you won’t hear from the messenger
Don’t wanna know ’bout something that you don’t understand
You got no fear of the underdog
That’s why you will not survive

— Spoon, “The Underdog”

Losing 1-0 on the road in a one-game playoff is an awfully tough way for things to end and leaves me sort of shell-shocked when it comes to looking back at the Twins’ season. For the most part, fans seem to fall into two categories regarding the Twins this year, either viewing their 88-win, second-place finish as gravy because of low expectations or seeing their late-season collapse as a disappointing failure to take advantage of an unexpectedly weak division. For me, their season falls somewhere in between.

It’s true that expectations for the Twins this season were lower than they’ve been at any point since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager. In fact, my March 31 entry noted that “for the first time in the nearly six-year history of my blog, Opening Day has arrived without the Twins being viewed as serious playoff contenders.” In that sense, they certainly outperformed expectations, spending all season as “serious playoff contenders” and ultimately coming up one game short of their fifth division title in seven years.

On the other hand, the now oft-repeated notion that no one could have possibly expected the Twins to play as well as they did is an exaggeration to say the least. Sure, my prediction that they’d finish in third place proved to be wrong, but that has more to do with the rest of the division underperforming than it does anything else. My guess was that the Twins would win 83 to 85 games this season and they ended up winning 88, which is hardly shattering expectations.

Instead, 88 wins (or even 83 to 85 wins) proved to be better than anticipated, compared with the rest of the division because both the Indians and Tigers failed to emerge as elite teams. Coming into the season it looked to me at least like winning 83 or 85 or 88 games would be good for third place, because the Indians and Tigers would likely win 90-plus. In reality, 83 or 85 or 88 wins led to a near first-place finish and a season-long stay in playoff contention because the rest of the division underperformed.

In other words, while the Twins absolutely outperformed preseason expectations, they hardly shattered them to the degree that many fans suddenly seem to believe, and if the Indians and Tigers hadn’t fallen apart, the Twins winning 88 games would be viewed much differently. Context is everything. All of which is why their season ultimately strikes me as both successful and disappointing, which is admittedly an odd combination. Of course, it was an odd season.

Winning 88 games and finishing nine agonizing innings away from another division title is clearly a more successful season than anyone should have realistically expected. However, a big part of why winning 88 games put the Twins in position to contend all season is that the rest of the division was dramatically weaker than most people expected. Because of that, there’s a lot of disappointment mixed in with the success.

By not addressing the bullpen’s problems and stumbling to a 14-21 record down the stretch, the Twins failed to take advantage of a surprising opportunity to win the weaker-than-expected division. Sure, they won slightly more games than my prediction and a dozen more games than many people expected, and it’s understandable that those same people view 88 wins and contending until the very end as successful, period. Part of me definitely agrees with that.

At the same time, the front office followed a poor winter by refusing to address an in-season weakness that consistently led to losses, and the team limped to the finish line by repeatedly blowing chances to emerge atop a division that was there for the taking. Should that be overlooked because they won 88 games and the division struggled? Perhaps, but that’s a tough sell for me after watching things unfold. Successful doesn’t preclude disappointing, just as disappointment doesn’t take away from success.

The season included many memorable wins, outstanding performances from Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, Scott Baker, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel, an encouraging comeback from Francisco Liriano, the emergence of Denard Span and Kevin Slowey, and clear signs of promise from Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, Jose Mijares, Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Brian Buscher, Matt Tolbert, and Craig Breslow.

The season included many crushing losses, regrettable acquisitions Livan Hernandez, Craig Monroe, Mike Lamb, and Adam Everett, unfortunate departures from Johan Santana, Matt Garza, Torii Hunter, and Jason Bartlett, forgettable performances from Matt Guerrier, Boof Bonser, Brian Bass, and Juan Rincon, underwhelming debuts from Gomez, Young, and general manager Bill Smith, and injuries to Michael Cuddyer and Pat Neshek.

The season was simultaneously successful and disappointing, which is a combination that made the 163-game marathon such an interesting roller-coaster ride and what leaves me struggling to stomach how the whole thing ended. The promise of a significantly improved division in 2009 also makes me wonder what the offseason holds for a GM who struggled in his first year on the job and a young team that exceeded expectations before crumbling under the pressure of an unexpected pennant race.

Five months until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Conklin Conklin on 10/02/2008 - 12:52 pm.

    Why are the sports media focusing on the playoff coin toss as the key factor in Tuesday’s loss? Why not wonder about Cleveland’s lifting 22-3 Cliff Lee from a scheduled start in the final series game in Chicago? That was a gift to the White Sox. He reportedly had a stiff neck. Hey, take an Advil and report to the mound. Another proof that, in contrast to the cardio-pulmonary conditioning of, say, pro basketball players, baseball players can go on the DL for a hangnail.

  2. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 10/02/2008 - 03:19 pm.

    I just noticed the Cliff Lee thing, which is disappointing. However, even Cliff Lee would have been hard-pressed to win in Chicago against an outstanding Mark Buehrle.

    Also, it should be noted that baseball players, particularly pitchers, put an incredible amount of stress on very specific parts of their body, as opposed to the “cardio-pulmonary” running-based activity of most other athletes. Furthermore, the individual aspect of the game, where every batter has to take a turn swinging the bat, and every pitcher has to throw the ball with maximum effort, means that a player can’t compensate as easily for an injury by deferring to teammates on the field of play. A basketball player with a stiff neck can position himself differently on the court, pass more rather than drive into the lane, and exit and re-enter the game as the injury demands; a baseball pitcher lacks virtually all of those luxuries.

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