By Matthew Curtis | Enzian Theater September 29, 2006 at 4:59AM
With just four games left in the regular season, my Minnesota Twins have clinched a playoff berth, are a half game out of a tie for the division lead with the Tigers, and two games back of the Yankees for best record in the American League--I am pumped! The turnaround after being 8 games under .500 in the first two months of the season has been virtually miraculous. They have played most of the season without their stud starting left fielder (and leadoff hitter), Shannon Stewart, and have been without their superstar rookie pitcher, Francisco Liriano, for nearly the final two months of the season. This guy was merely the best pitcher in baseball for over 2 1/2 months before hurting his elbow, and possibly would have been the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela over two decades ago to win both Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award. Yet somehow, with the "healthy" best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, anchoring a staff of rookie starters (we won't mention lame veteran Carlos Silva-ugh!), a great bullpen, good defense, and an opportunistic offense, this team of scrappers have come from way back to grab themselves a playoff spot.
For the first time ever, the Wild Card team will come from the AL Central (take that Red Sox!), which will have two teams in the playoffs. Who would've thought the World Champion Chicago White Sox wouldn't be part of that equation, but this is now the best division in baseball. Unfortunately, the Yankees and their $200 million dollar payroll and All-Star at every position (Robinson Cano, hitting .343, batted 9th in the order yesterday with both Giambi and Sheffield back in the lineup--that's sick!) will have to be taken out by somebody, and the Twins haven't been able to do that in recent years. But I'm sure they relish having the opportunity.
Individual honors are of course secondary to the success of the team, but heading into this final weekend a number of Twins have a great chance of picking up some end of year hardware as well: the most likely is Santana winning the Cy Young--he's tied with Wang from the Yankees (his likely Game 1 counterpart in the playoffs) for most wins with 19, and leads all other AL starters in strikeouts, ERA, and opponent's batting average; 1st baseman Justin Morneau is having a monster year hiiting in the .320's with 30-something home runs and 129 RBI, second to only David Ortiz--he's certainly an MVP candidate along with Ortiz and Yankee captain Derek Jeter; catcher Joe Mauer is hitting .350 and trying to become the first American League catcher in history to lead the league in batting average--it's only been done twice before by NL catchers and that was something like 60 years ago. Mauer's main competition are those two aforementioned Yankees--Cano's hitting .343 and because he was out injured for a few weeks, just qualified with enough at bats this week; Jeter's hitting .340 and is having a super year. And finally, though Jim Leyland has done a phenomenal job with a Detroit Tigers team that has surprised everyone, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has a definite shot at Manager of the Year, especially if Minnesota wins the division. Good things are happening, and Minnesota will be playing ball in October--what more can you ask? Go Twins!