If we've learned anything about Octobers the last few years, it's that the month tests, stretches and hones every aspect of loyalty fandom. Typically, we pretty much just tell our friends that we'll see them sometime in November. It's a stressful time.
Therefore, to adequately preview the madness that is the baseball playoffs, we've invited some of our favorite bloggers for each of the eight playoff teams to write about their teams, similar to our NFL Season Previews. No sport has better individual team blogs than baseball, and these writers are some of our favorites.
These will be running all day today, and we very much hope you enjoy them.
Up right now: The Minnesota Twins. Your writer is Aaron Gleeman.
The Minnesota Twins took one of the unlikeliest paths to a division title that you'll ever see. Once upon a time, back before Carl Monday was an international superstar, they were 25-33 and owners of the second-worst record in the AL. After scoring the league's fewest runs in 2005, they once again couldn't hit, and a pitching staff that was supposed to be among the league's strongest was instead getting knocked around.
Even Minnesota's typically excellent defense was lacking, in large part because they began the season with the execrable combination of Juan Castro and Tony Batista as the left side of the infield, which is not totally unlike beginning a marathon by shooting yourself in the foot (except, even post-shooting, you'd still have more range than Castro and Batista). The Twins were seemingly out of the playoff race before it had even begun.
When they woke up in Seattle on June 8, having served up a walk-off homer to Crazy Carl Everett the night before, the Twins were 11.5 games behind the Tigers in the division and 11 games back of the White Sox for the Wild Card. Baseball Prospectus, which tracks such things — probably with those big calculators that have Tetris on them — gave the Twins a 0.3-percent chance (yes, zero-point-three) of making the playoffs.
Within days, Batista was released and Castro was traded, and the roster underwent an overhaul that included a slew of young players in prominent roles. Even with the changes, it seemed too little too late and over at my blog I compared the moves to "throwing deck chairs off the Titanic." I was wrong. Starting with an innocent victory over the Mariners on June 9, the Twins morphed into the best team in baseball.
They won 21 of their next 23 games leading into the All-Star break and then began the second half by winning 12 of 14. From June 9 to September 28, they posted a ridiculous 70-31 record that blew away the White Sox to clinch a playoff spot with a week remaining on the schedule and amazingly put them into a first-place tie with the Tigers heading into the final weekend.
When the Tigers choked away the division by being swept at home by the last-place Royals, the Twins gladly snatched up the AL Central title despite having sole possession of first place for exactly one day. From a 25-33 start to a 71-33 finish, all at the flick of a switch. Not only are the Twins in the postseason, they're hosting a first-round series after finishing one measly game behind the mighty Yankees and Mets for baseball's top record, and there's little reason to think the clock is about to strike midnight.
Johan Santana is set to start twice in the ALDS and up to three times in any subsequent seven-game series after becoming just the eighth pitcher in the history of the sport to lead all of baseball in wins (19), ERA (2.77) and strikeouts (245) in the same season. The soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner took the mound 34 times in the regular season, with the Twins going 27-7.
The offense is built around speed, contact and slashing balls into gaps, featuring an unlikely cast of thrown-together role players who have embraced the "piranhas" nickname Ozzie Guillen gave them shortly after he made everyone ponder Jay Mariotti's grotesque sexuality. Oh, and the lineup also has four big boppers in the middle.
A 23-year-old Minnesota native and former No. 1 overall pick with the league's preeminent sideburns, Joe Mauer flirted with .400 before settling for becoming the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title. Justin Morneau is a 25-year-old Canadian first baseman with a last name that sounds like "porno" who batted .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs to become the team's biggest run producer since Harmon Killebrew.
Complimenting the lefty-hitting Mauer and Morneau are righties Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter, two more homegrown talents who combined for 55 homers and 207 RBIs. And when it comes time to slam the door on a late-inning lead, there's no bullpen better or deeper than Minnesota's and no closer more dominant than Joe Nathan, who went 7-0 with 36 saves in 38 chances while posting a 1.58 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 68 innings.
With a 1-2 punch of Santana and Francisco Liriano (12-3 record, 2.16 ERA), the Twins would have been absolutely deadly in the postseason and a clear favorite to reach the World Series. Liriano's season-ending elbow injury makes that a moot point, but the Twins are still going to be a very tough out and are capable of going the distance. Just ask the Tigers, who probably still don't know quite what hit them.