Inside The Dugout: The Twins Wild Ride

So the Twins are in, and the World Champions are out, thanks to a three-month ride that saw the Twins go from a joke, to the toast of the American League. Here is my take on the Twins, and what impressed me the most this season. Only one game back for the best record in the American League, the Twins sure have surprised people this season.

So the Twins are in the playoffs, and they enter the postseason as the hottest team in baseball. Making a complete turnaround in two to three seasons is hard enough, but when a team does it in a matter of months, it is almost historic. Maybe that is the word to be used to describe this 2006 Minnesota Twins ballclub, who after starting the year so horribly, are now one game away from having the best record in the American League.

Everybody knows about Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau, the new millenniums version of the M&M Boys. Mauer, who leads the league with a .349 batting average, is the consummate hitter, who sprays the ball to all fields. Morneau, who most labeled as a bust last season, has gone on to put up MVP-caliber numbers, blasting 34 home runs, driving in 129, and silencing his critics in the process. Obviously the Twins would not be where they are without these two sluggers, but what makes this team great is the fact they have the players who do the little things, and they do it better than any other lineup in the league.

Just one look at the Twins lineup and you wonder how they are 30 games over .500. They bat Jason Tyner and Jason Bartlett in the number eight and nine holes respectively and neither one of these players were on the Opening Day roster. Fast forward to present date, and both players are batting over .315, and it was Tyner's single on Monday night that proved to clinch the post-season for the Twins.

Bartlett, who many had written off as the Twins shortstop of the future, has been a rock since returning to the Twins, and is playing with a new found confidence. "Bart", as manager Ron Gardenhire likes to refer to him as, has also played in 93 straight games since being recalled from Rochester, and he has looked nothing like the player who was beaten out by Juan Castro for the Twins starting shortstop job in Spring Training.

Nick Punto and Luis Castillo have been the table setters for the Twins during their run, and Punto may have played himself into the Twins permanent plans. Though he does not have the power of a prototypical third baseman, Punto makes all the plays at the hot corner, and is batting close to .300 this season. He has provided the Twins with plenty of clutch hits over the course of the season, and Twins fans have almost become accustomed to his bare-handed plays at third. Castillo has done everything the Twins thought he would when they signed him this past off-season, and his 25 stolen bases are the most he has recorded since 2002.

As the regular season comes to a close, it is good to see Rondell White putting some good wood on the ball, trying to get out of a horrific season-long slump. The Twins seem to have forgotten about the mistakes of 2006, like Tony Batista and Juan Castro, and as their Minor League system continues to get stronger, so do the expectations of Twins faithful. One product of the farm who performed well this season was Josh Rabe, who contributed bigtime in his 23 games in the Majors, batting .286, and fitting right into the Twins scheme.

Also of note, Michael Cuddyer has quietly put up over 100 runs batted in this season, and Mike Redmond is batting .343 as the Twins back-up catcher. Pretty nice statistics.

The Twins have always been based around pitching, and this season, the rotation has had question marks from Opening Day. One constant has been Johan Santana, the front-runner for the Cy Young Award, who has won 18 games this season. Aside from the victories, the lefty also leads the league in earned run average (2.79), and his 240 strikeouts are tops. While the Twins have mixed and matched the rotation all season long, Santana has shown just how valuable he has been to the team.

However, as a whole, the Twins pitching staff has not been bad at all, and in fact, nine of their pitchers have an earned run average under 4.00. One extremely big surprise was Dennys Reyes, the portly lefty who has looked almost untouchable this season. In his 63 appearances since being recalled from Rochester, Reyes has posted a 0.91 earned run average, and he is a perfect 5-0. Add him to a bullpen that includes Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, and Patrick Neshek, and you have some solid arms leading up to possibly the best closer in all of baseball.

Neshek has looked unfazed in his first season in the big leagues, posting a 2.31 earned run average in 31 games after being the best relief pitcher in the International League to start the season.

Joe Nathan is having his best season as a Twin according to Gardenhire, and the statistics do not tell us otherwise. He has blown only two saves all season long, and the Pine Bush, New York native is a perfect 6-0. All this comes with him really not pitching at all, or not having an opportunity to pitch, for most of April. Getting Nathan may have been the best move of the Terry Ryan regime.

This last week will be huge for the Twins, as they try to capture home field advantage, and take the distinction of having the best record in the league. It seems the Yankees are content with just winning the division, and if the Tigers falter, it could be the Twins who stroll into the playoffs with the best record in the American League. Wouldn't that be something.

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