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September 19, 2003
Nine days ago, the Twins were up against the wall. They'd dropped the first two games of a four-game series in Chicago, falling two behind the White Sox in the AL Central. They'd be sending their ace, Johan Santana, to the mound for the third game, but that wasn't without its perils--the heavily right-handed White Sox were slugging above .480 against southpaws. Even if the third game went their way, the Twins would be facing Esteban Loaiza, Cy Young contender, in the fourth game. They seemed certain to leave Chicago with a hill to climb, the only question was how big.
Now, nine days ago seems like nine years ago. Last night's 5-3 win over the Sox was the fifth game in a row the Twins had taken from their chief rival, and it extended their AL Central lead to 3.5 games over the Sox. With seven of their last nine games against the Tigers, and a magic number of seven, it seems like just a matter of time before the Twins become--you taking notes, Bud?--back-to-back AL Central champions.
How did they pull it off? They completely shut down the White Sox in the five wins, holding a team that had been averaging 4.7 runs per game to 10 total, or two per game. The Twins' starters had five quality outings, and the bullpen was insane, allowing one run and two hits in 9 2/3 innings, all of them protecting small leads. They didn't score a ton of runs, but most of the games followed a similar pattern: the Twins would take an early lead and let their pitching and defense do the work from there. The scores--4-1, 5-2, 5-2, 4-2 and 5-3--reflect the Sox's inability to generate offense.
The Sox were awful, displaying an offense reduced to singles and hope, with hope on the 15-day DL. They hit four home runs and two doubles in the five games, both doubles in last night's contest. They walked just four times. They weren't even bunching their singles: 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position. That's basically the Dodgers' offense, and it's the reason the South Siders' season is going to end in 10 days.
For the full story, though, you have to ask a different question: Where did these Twins come from? They have the best record in baseball since the All-Star break, a 40-20 mark. While everyone--myself included--was writing about the Cinderella Royals and the vastly-improved White Sox, the Twins were playing the best ball of the bunch.
Much of the focus has been on the acquisition of Shannon Stewart. The trade, for Bobby Kielty, was largely panned by statheads, but it looked like a win-win at the time. Stewart was a better bet to be a productive leadoff hitter for the last three months of 2003, while Kielty has three seasons to go before free agency and considerable potential as a Rusty Greer-type hitter.
The deal worked out exactly as the Twins hoped. Stewart is a big part of the reason the Twins went from 4.6 runs a game before the break to 5.4 after, a 17% increase. You can see his impact in comparing him to the Twins' leadoff hitters before he arrived:
Batting #1: AB AVG OBP SLG Shannon Stewart 246 .325 .382 .476 Others 432 .305 .329 .472
That middle column is the difference. With Stewart at the top of the lineup, the Twins not only had a true leadoff OBP in the #1 slot, but could move Jacque Jones, the primary leadoff hitter before Stewart, down to where his good power could be put to better use. The combined effect put a lot more runs on the board, enough to make the Twins a .667 team since Stewart's arrival.
After the trade, the Twins became more OBP-oriented not just in the leadoff spot, but across the board. They went from a .275/.334/.434 team to a .280/.350/.420 one, as a number of regulars traded power for OBP. Doug Mientkiewicz quietly became a monster: .317/.443/.448 since the break, which partially explains how Torii Hunter could bat .246 and still have 43 second-half RBI. It also helped that Ron Gardenhire finally found at-bats for Matt LeCroy, who slugged over .500 in July and August before slumping in September.
The pitching staff picked up two good starters at mid-season without making a trade. Johan Santana deserves most of the credit; finally left alone in the rotation, he gave the Twins the shutdown starting pitcher they hadn't had since Brad Radke was an ace. Santana's quality work every fifth day--3.21 ERA, 6 1/3 IP/start and 80 strikeouts in 75 2/3 post-All-Star break innings--gave the Twins at least one start each time though the rotation in which the bullpen wasn't being asked to go four or five innings.
The other key for a pitching staff that needed to start getting quality innings was Radke, who got himself turned around in the second half, getting his sinker down more, throwing more strikes and keeping the ball in the park. His last dozen starts are his best pitching since 2001:
GS IP BB SO HR ERA Pre-ASB 19 118.0 20 68 20 5.49 Post-ASB 12 82.1 7 43 12 3.50
Radke came up huge for the Twins against the White Sox: 16 innings, no walks, eight strikeouts and three runs allowed in two starts. He and Santana are the answer to a question to which there was no response eight weeks ago: Who are the Twins' top two starters? The Twins still got back-of-the-rotation bulk innings in the second half from Kyle Lohse and Kenny Rogers, but they were identifiable as such. The 4.70 ERA, 6 IP/start class of pitchers is valuable when you have two of them. If you have four, that's a problem.
All of the above performances put the Twins in position to win, but it took coming up big in the five biggest games of the season to win the division, and they did it. Get past what will likely be a lot of stories about off-field factors--the usual intangibles stories that would have looked a lot different nine days ago--and examine what the Twins did in those five games:
The Twins played better baseball. They deserve the division, and to have a laugh at the expense of those of us who overlooked them in the rush to cover a better story.