That was kind of amazing.
When the Twins lost in Detroit last Wednesday, it looked (to me at least) like the season was over, save for “a miracle if things break perfectly for the Twins and horribly for the Tigers.” They were three games back with four games left, which put their odds at around 5 percent with a deficit that no team in MLB history had come back from. So naturally they won the next four games while the Tigers went 1-3 and now the Twins are the only team in MLB history to be in a one-game playoff in back-to-back seasons.
Not only did the Twins erase the Tigers’ three-game lead in four days to force Game 163 for the second straight year, they’ve won 16 of 20 games since Justin Morneau was shut down with a back injury and are 30-14 since falling a season-worst six games below .500 at 56-62 in mid-August. I’m not sure how to explain it and certainly didn’t believe they could do it, but it sure has been fun to watch. And we’re not done yet, because the Twins and Tigers will decide the AL Central title tomorrow at the Metrodome.
Some of the individual performances during their dramatic team-wide turnaround are mind-boggling. Michael Cuddyer was already having a very solid year when Morneau went down, but since replacing him at first base, he’s hit .333 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 20 games. Delmon Young became the everyday left fielder when Cuddyer shifted to first base, and has hit .363 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 20 games after previously batting just .265/.287/.387.
Joe Crede‘s season-ending back injury opened a hole at third base and Ron Gardenhire decided to fill it with Matt Tolbert, who’d posted a dreadful .234/.300/.307 career line. Since then he’s started 17 of 20 games while hitting .306/.338/.452 with Crede-like defense. Orlando Cabrera batted .237 with a putrid .268 on-base percentage through his first 43 games with the Twins but over his last 15 games has hit .433 while scoring a run in all but one of them.
Toss in the continued season-long excellence of Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span, and the Morneau-less Twins’ lineup has been on absolute fire with 127 runs over 20 games. That works out to 6.4 runs per game after the offense averaged a modest 4.8 runs through the first 142 games. And the pitching staff that fell apart, thanks to injuries in the rotation and shoddy relief work, has experienced a similar turnaround, allowing 20 percent fewer runs during the 30-14 stretch.
The rotation’s new front four of Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and Brian Duensing were a combined 17-9 with a 3.76 ERA over that 44-game stretch and relievers Jesse Crain (1.37), Jon Rauch (1.80), Matt Guerrier (2.00), Ron Mahay (2.08), and Jose Mijares (2.45) each had ERAs under 2.50. In fact, the only relievers to post an ERA above 2.50 while appearing in at least 10 of the 44 games were Joe Nathan at 3.22 and Bobby Keppel at 6.61.
Apparently when fourth-fifths of the rotation is humming along, the lineup is filled with guys hitting .350, and every reliever coming out of the bullpen has a 2.00 ERA … well, some crazy things can happen. Will it continue long enough to defeat the Tigers Tuesday and make some noise in the playoffs for the first time since 2002? Who knows. Last year’s one-game playoff ended in disappointment, and the Twins’ last dramatic late-season comeback against Detroit merely led to being swept out of the postseason.
However, unlike last season, Tuesday afternoon’s one-game playoff is in Minnesota and the Twins are clearly the favorites with Baker facing Rick Porcello at the Metrodome. All of which isn’t to suggest that Porcello is a pushover. He may be a 20-year-old rookie, but he’s turned in one of the best seasons of all time for a 20-year-old pitcher and has shown no signs of slowing down, thanks to the Tigers smartly limiting his workload for most of the year.
Porcello is 5-2 with a 3.19 ERA in 12 starts since Aug..1, including 6.1 innings of one-run ball versus the Twins last week. He doesn’t miss many bats with 81 strikeouts in 165 innings and subsequently has allowed a .270 opponents’ batting average but makes up for it by inducing the most ground balls in the league. Don’t expect the Twins to do much power hitting, but they’ll have some chances to string hits together and Porcello’s modest workloads should mean several innings from the Tigers’ bullpen.
And of course the guy taking the mound for the Twins is pretty good, too. Baker got off to a terrible start, beginning the season on the disabled list before going 0-4 with a 9.15 ERA and eight homers allowed through four outings. However, since then, he’s 15-5 with a 3.79 ERA in 28 starts, including five innings of one-run ball versus Detroit last week. Nick Blackburn has thrived in big-game situations, but Baker has been the Twins’ best starting pitcher over the past two years.
While the Twins were going 16-4 without Morneau and 30-14 since mid-August, the Tigers went 11-15 after extending their lead to a season-high seven games in early September. They’re also just 36-46 on the road, while the Twins are 47-33 at home, and as we saw (and heard) Sunday, the Metrodome isn’t going quietly. All of which means surprisingly little, because anything can happen in one game for everything. Hell, as this weekend and the past month or so have shown, anything can happen, period.
What we do know is that the Twins are playing at home with their best starter on the mound as slight favorites for a spot in the playoffs, where the slate is wiped clean, 11 wins equals a championship, and flaws and injuries give way to luck and small-sample-size heroics. By Tuesday night, the Twins will be either finished playing until next spring or heading to New York for a first-round matchup against the Yankees. And for the first time all season the latter possibility is actually more likely. Youneverknow.