This series had to be awfully confusing for the baseball-watching public, who for years have been assured by every announcer, columnist and talking head that Alex Rodriguez is incapable of coming through in the clutch and the Twins win by “doing the little things.” Neither of those prepackaged storylines proved accurate in New York’s sweep, but then again they weren’t entirely accurate coming into the American League Division Series either.
Rodriguez going 5-for-11 with two homers and six RBIs in the three-game series is certainly a big change from his recent playoff struggles, but for all the criticism that he’s taken for wilting under pressure, he has a higher lifetime postseason OPS than Derek Jeter and has hit extremely well in “close and late” situations during the regular season throughout his career.
And while fans and media members who don’t actually see Minnesota play all that much tend to blindly repeat the various mantras about “playing the right way,” the Twins’ focus on fundamentals and execution has steadily eroded since Tom Kelly stepped down as manager in 2001. Both positive and negative, reputations can be difficult to shake once established.
The combination of mental and physical mistakes, a blown save by one of the best closers in baseball, and coming up empty offensively in crucial spots is a tough way for things to end after the late-season charge that the Twins made just to grab a playoff spot, but ultimately a mediocre, injury-wrecked 87-win team with a $65 million payroll dropping three straight to a dominant, star-studded 103-win team with a $200 million payroll is no shock. The better team won, even if the worse team helped them too much.
Every year fans and media members draw wide-ranging conclusions about teams that get swept out of the playoffs, and that temptation is particularly strong in the Twins’ case because they went 0-10 versus the Yankees this season, are 16-48 against New York over Ron Gardenhire‘s eight years as manager, and are now just 6-18 in the playoffs during that same time. However, history has shown that anything can happen in the playoffs, and losing three straight games to a clearly better team certainly qualifies.
You’ll no doubt read articles this week about how Joe Nathan is washed up or Gardenhire needs to be fired or various impact players need to be traded or all kinds of other sweeping changes based on how the team performed in a few games against a superior opponent, but don’t buy it. Sure, the Twins have lots of issues to address and lots of holes to fill, but that was just as true last week, when everyone was giddy about sneaking into the playoffs, as it is this week, when everyone is sad about being swept out.
At the end of the day, the Twins simply need to improve, not because they lost a best-of-five series, but because they won 87 games in baseball’s worst division after going 88-75 in 2008 and 79-83 in 2007. They need to surround Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer with other capable bats, they need to make decisions on Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, they need to sort out the rotation, and they need to pull off some significant moves without getting fleeced again.
Whether you view the Twins’ season as a success or a disappointment and whether you think that they ended on a high note with Game 163 or a sour note with the postseason sweep, the same strengths, weaknesses and issues are present heading into what is an extremely important winter for Bill Smith and the front office. My guess is that the roster that closed down the Metrodome will look much different than the group that opens Target Field, and that should be both exciting and frightening for Twins fans.
Wait ’til next year.