MINNEAPOLIS — LIS - Ron Gardenhire’s starting lineup this past weekend included two starts by catcher Drew Butera and three starts by outfielders Ben Revere and Jason Repko, which is proof enough this isn’t the usual band of Twins baseball has known in recent years.
“We’ve kind of been playing catch-up every year to make the playoffs,” said pitcher Jesse Crain, who’s been a key in the Minnesota’s bullpen since 2004. “We’ve kind of come from behind every single year to make the playoffs. It’s nice to not have to rush it.”
With their sixth American League Central title in the past nine years all but wrapped up, the Twins now focus their attention on getting back to the Fall Classic, which has been a much more elusive task. The Twins have actually only won three playoff games since advancing to their American League Championship Series in 2002. Their last four attempts have resulted in quick exits from the American League Division Series.
What are the chances 2010 might be different? To hear the Minnesota players tell it, it’s a lot more depth, which has been on display in the aftermath of key injuries to All-Stars Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan.
“I think this off-season the front office realized it, and we realized it, that depth was what we needed,” said Twins veteran Michael Cuddyer, who’s been with the club since 2001. “I 100 percent believe that’s why we’re in the position we’re in (as opposed to years past). We’re better equipped.”
With veteran infielders J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson up the middle and outfielder Delmon Young finally maximizing his potential, the Twins are among the leaders in team defense, runs scored and pitching.
“We all play the ‘Twins Way’ and I think it shows the way we’ve played in the second half,” Crain commented. “It’s just playing hard and trying to cut down on the mistakes. Anybody who follows us knows we could be down four or five runs in the last inning but the game is not over until the last out is made. That kind of defines the ‘Twins Way.’ We never give up. We’re going to play every ball out and battle to the very end.”
Oh, and this off-season they also added a future Hall-of-Famer in Jim Thome, a member of baseball’s exclusive top 10 home run list and the only current Twins player to play in a World Series.
“They (front office) got a guy like Jim Thome, but with the understanding that maybe he wasn’t going to play as much as he was used to,” Cuddyer added. “Lo and behold, he goes out and plays almost every day now. And when Nathan goes down, you get two other closers from other teams.”
While a comfortable division lead has given Gardenhire the opportunity to rest injured catcher Joe Mauer and outfielders Denard Span and Jason Kubel, among others, the depth has provided the Twins with balance to off-set the losses of Morneau and Nathan.
“Over the course of the season you try to bolster yourself because you’re going to have injuries,” said Gardenhire, now in his ninth season skippering the Twins. “It’s played out pretty good.”
Added Crain: “It’s gotta be right up there as far as the deepest bullpen we’ve had. Although we’re missing Nathan, we picked up (Brian) Fuentes and (Matt) Capps, and (Joe) Rauch closed half a season. To have them and myself and (Matt) Guerrier and (Randy) Flores, we’ve got a lot of guys in our bullpen that have played in big games.”
If the Twins have another advantage it might be home field. With Target Field in its inaugural season, opponents face a lack of familiarity with both the ballpark and the elements of outdoor baseball in October in Minnesota. But the Twins aren’t getting hung up on making a deep run this fall being hinged on home field advantage.
“We’ve had that in the past with the Metrodome and it still didn’t work out too well for us,” Cuddyer said.
Although any team that steps onto Target Field this October will be doing so for only their second series ever, Gardenhire also isn’t overemphasizing Minnesota’s stellar home mark of 49-25 as a potential home field advantage, or his club’s recent quick post-season exits.
“I let you guys (in the media) do that (analysis). We’ve just got to get ready and play,” the manager said. “A lot of different things can happen in the post-season. We’ve played well here at home, but that’s no guarantee on anything.”
Added Gardenhire: “Would you like to be at home? Absolutely. Will it be a disadvantage for another ball club? Have no idea. Can’t tell you. Don’t have an answer for it until you get the post-season and the game starts.”
Here’s what we do know. Since 2006, five new ballparks have opened and two of those have witnessed the crowning of a champion: the 2006 Cardinals and 2009 Yankees.
Might the 50th anniversary of the Twins franchise be the third? Stay tuned.