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What the 2019 Twins could learn from 2004 Red Sox

“I like the Twins,” said Kevin Millar, who played on that Red Sox team and who’s now a talking head on the MLB Network. “I don’t think they’re getting enough credit all the way through the board. This isn’t an 89-win team.”

BostonRed Sox in 2004
Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitekand pitcher Alan Embree embracing as they are approached by teammates including Kevin Millar, left, and Derel Lowe, right, after the team's 10-3 victory over the New York Yankees to win Game 7 and the American League Championship Series in New York on October 20, 2004.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

They were The Idiots, those 2004 Boston Red Sox, so dubbed by a former St. Paul Saint named Kevin Millar who was as tired of losing to the Yankees as anyone else in the so-called Red Sox Nation. Those Sox ended more than 50 years of pinstriped frustration with the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history, winning the American League Championship Series after losing the first three games and trailing in the ninth inning of Game 4 against Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.

These days the provocative Millar co-hosts Intentional Talk on the MLB Network, the outlet airing Friday night’s Game 1 of the Twins-Yankees American League Division Series. As the series opens in New York, the Twins face a task similar to those Red Sox. Most know the Twins’ sorry Bronx Tale. The Yankees drubbed the Twins over four consecutive Division Series from 2003 to 2010, winning the last ten games for the bulk of the Twins’ 13-game postseason losing streak. Overall, the Twins are 37-99 against the Yankees since 2002, including playoffs. 

Such bad memories. No wonder Minnesotans cut their pizza into rectangles.

This season, the Twins crushed a major league record 307 home runs, won the second-most games in franchise history (101) and posted the third-most road victories in baseball history (55). No doubt these Twins are more formidable than the popgun outfits the stacked Yankees cooly dismissed in the aughts, at least at the plate. Joe Mauer’s retirement left no one on the roster from any of the Division Series losses, though nine remain from the 2017 wild card game defeat at Yankee Stadium (plus Miguel Sano, who was injured).

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Still, this week Twins rookie manager Rocco Baldelli and his players faced multiple questions about their abysmal track record against New York. Millar heard similar things in ’04, especially after the Yankees dispatched the Sox in the ’03 ALCS. That’s the series best remembered for the bench-clearing brawl in Game 3, when Pedro Martinez flung 72-year-old Yankee coach Don Zimmer aside like a beach ball, and Aaron Boone ending it with 11th-inning walk-off homer in Game 7.

“We were a confident group in our own little way,” Millar told MinnPost in a telephone interview from MLB Network studios in New Jersey. “Billy Mueller was a batting champion at third base. Orlando Cabrera (later a Twin) was a heck of a shortstop. Mark Bellhorn was a heck of a second baseman who hit 20 home runs for us (actually 17). Kevin Millar, who cares? Trot Nixon was a gamer. Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek … our team, we were confident in who we were. 

“On paper, that (Yankees) team was way better than the Red Sox. But we didn’t care who they were. We believed in us, a quiet arrogance behind the scenes. That’s what made that situation never over. Even in Game 4, down (4-3), facing Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball, in an elimination game.” 

That night Millar led off the ninth with a walk. Future Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, pinch-running, boldly stole second. Mueller singled him home, and in the 12th series MVP David Ortiz won it with a two-run homer. Then it was Ortiz again in Game 5, singling in the winning run in the 14th inning; Curt Schilling and the bloody sock in Game 6; and Damon’s two home runs in Game 7. That was it, the sweet victory Red Sox fans pined for since 1949, when an aging Joe DiMaggio returned from bone spurs to snatch a pennant from the Ted Williams-led Sox. 

Kevin Millar in 2018
Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Millar in 2018
The 2004 Sox also benefited from interdivisional familiarity, playing the Yankees 19 games instead of six (and winning 11), making three trips to Yankee Stadium instead of one. 

So what can these Twins, and especially their fans, take from those Sox? Belief in each other. Belief that no matter how many big names the Yankees trot out there, from Aaron Judge on down, the Twins are not inferior. 

“It’s creating a confidence when you’re walking into Yankee Stadium,” Millar said. “The Twins need to create some kind of confidence and swagger, that they believe in themselves and believe they’re better than the New York Yankees. All the radio shows, the televisions shows, the opinions, it means nothing. The 25 dudes in that clubhouse, that means everything.”

That starts with Nelson Cruz, the 39-year-old designated hitter signed to be a big stick and a clubhouse leader. He was both, hitting 41 homers (five against the Yankees) with 108 RBI while providing Sano and others with a quiet, professional presence. “The Nelson Cruz Experience could not have been more perfect for us,” Baldelli said Thursday at Yankee Stadium. 

The Twins need Cruz to be their David Ortiz, and his postseason numbers — 16 homers and 34 RBI in 41 games, with a .292 average — suggest he’s capable. Cruz was the 2010 ALCS MVP for Texas and played in back-to-back World Series with the Rangers, though he is remembered more for failing to catch a fly ball that would have ended World Series Game 6 in 2011 and given Texas its first world championship. St. Louis won the series in seven games.  

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“It’s going to be fun,” Cruz said. “I can’t wait to get to that point. My mindset is, when that moment comes, be sure you’re ready for the moment.”

Millar likes Game 1 starter Jose Berrios (14-8. 3.68 ERA), whom he said “can match up with anybody in the big leagues when his slider is on.” Mainly, though, Millar said the Twins need to come through in big moments, which they couldn’t do in those ALDS losses. You remember the big ones. Juan Rincon serving a three-run homer to Ruben Sierra in 2004. Alex Rodriguez taking Joe Nathan deep in 2009. 

And here’s one nobody remembers: J.J. Hardy in 2010, striking out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Game 1, right after CC Sabathia walked in the tying run. Mark Teixeira followed with a two-run homer in the seventh off Jesse Crain, and the Yankees went on to win 6-4 and sweep the series.

“I like the Twins,” Millar said. “I don’t think they’re getting enough credit all the way through the board. This isn’t an 89-win team. They overcame a really good Cleveland Indians club that struggled the first 6-8 weeks with (Francisco) Lindor’s injury, then came back firing. They were able to sustain and hold off everybody in the Central. Tip your hat.

“It’s okay to be proud to walk into Yankee Stadium with your chest out, to believe you’re a World Series championship team. If they don’t believe that, they’re not going to win the series.”