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Baseball

Baseball – The Season So Far…

At the start of every baseball season for God knows how many years, Ernie Harwell, a former announcer for the Detroit Tigers, would read a poem and tell the listeners that hope springs eternal for every team at the start of a new baseball season.

Sure, most true baseball fans know that, because we’ve all seen or read about those miracle clubs who made something out of nothing for a remarkable year, like the ’91 Twins, the Miracle Mets of 1969, or the 2004 Red Sox. We also know that with some luck and good timing, great things can happen in this game.

So with just a couple of weeks left in the season, we here in Minnesota are being treated to such a miracle season. Remember: at the start of the year, we had lost our big free-agent pitcher for half the year to a positive steroid test, we had a very young team coming out of camp, and we had a brand new manager who had very little managing experience. The odds were not in our favor.

But here we sit, 1 game out of a wild card spot. During a time when for the last few years we’ve been trying to acquaint ourselves with the names of kids who might never show up here at the big league level again, we’re enjoying an actual playoff chase, while sitting comfortably above supposedly better teams like Detroit and Cleveland.

And the fans are loving it. Finally: September baseball that means something.

You really hope it’s a sign of things to come for this young team: maybe we really have a good core staff of young pitchers. And maybe we have an outfield that can really play on both sides of the plate. And maybe we’ve got great power hitters in the middle of the lineup in Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier.

So maybe, regardless of how this season turns out (remember that there’s another Cinderella story this season in Houston), these guys will turn around next year and know how to take the lead, keep the lead, and play solid ball all season long.

The key, both for the players and the fans, is to know that however the final standings come out for this year, it’s been better than anyone had hoped. And it shouldn’t be a disappointment. Because next season should be great.

Because next April, hope will again spring eternal.

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Baseball

Mid-Season Checkup

Who’da thunk that at the All Star break, our beloved hometown nine would be within shouting distance of first place in the division?

And who would have even dreamt that the Twins would be in the top tier of teams in the entire league this year?

And who would dare to even say out loud that the Minnesota Twins, cellar-dwellers for the last 4 years, would have the second best record in the American League at the All Star break?

No one. And if anyone says they did, just slap them. Because they’re lying.

For years, this team looked good on paper. For years, this team had good, though conservative management. For years, we had the promise, but never delivered. And then there was April.

I’ve written about it here earlier in the season, but the season just started out like everything was pointed in the wrong direction. Fielding and base running sucked. Hitters couldn’t find the gaps. And the pitching was bad, frequently leaving the team behind even before the offense could step to the plate.

But we’re sitting at a 49-40 record now, nine games over the .500 mark that we’d been looking up at for four seasons. The team is excited. The town is excited. Hell, even baseball’s excited: During the All Star Game, there were repeated comments on just how good the Twins looked, and how good a player Brian Dozier is.

So now, Paul Molitor and his team need to keep it together and play well down the stretch. The team has found it’s leader and players, and they just need to keep producing. Even if the Twins don’t make the playoffs, if they can keep playing strong baseball and stay in the race, I don’t think anyone in these parts will mind.

Winning does that to fans. No one expected this performance this year. And everyone’s loving it and the play of all of the young players has brought a long-term excitement to the team that’s been lacking for several years.

For once in a long time, there’s hope for the season after the All Star Game. Bring on the last three months of baseball!

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Baseball

What In The Wide Wide World of Sports?

Count me among the pleasantly surprised and shocked Minnesota Twins fans in the world. Not since 1991 have I been so surprised by one of our teams. Granted, we’re only one-quarter of the way through the grueling baseball season, but I think everyone would agree that being in second place and 8 games over .500 at this point in the season is more than remarkable.

I’ll admit to being more than skeptical about the decision to name Paul Molitor as manager. Sure, the guy had a great (and long) playing career, and he’d proven himself to have a great baseball mind, but those things do not automatically translate to being quality managerial material. I was hoping for someone who had successfully rebuilt franchises wherever he had been–think a Jim Leyland type, but without the chain smoking and colorful vocabulary–and had the ability to quickly bring along young talent while building a really strong pitching staff.

And while the Torii Hunter signing was big, it was another of a long line of signings meant to bring home the old guys so they could finish their careers at home. Granted, some of these were successful (Molitor, Winfield, Morris, Blyleven), but others just were a chance for someone to end their career quietly. It’s always dicey when you’re signing a guy who’s nearing his 40th birthday. Experience and clubhouse presence is one thing, but making on-field contributions on a daily basis is an entirely different matter.

So the Ervin Santana signing was huge. Finally, we seemed to snag a top-line starting pitcher who could help anchor an otherwise mediocre pitching staff. He looked okay going through spring training, so it looked like we’d picked up a guy who could eat up some innings and keep us in games every fifth day. Then right before the team broke camp, he was hit with the 80 game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.

Anyone else in class remember that first week plus? Our 1-6 start? The fact that the Twins scored 1 run in the entire series against Detroit? We looked entirely mismatched and unable to do anything right on either side of the ball.

What a difference a month makes. The Twins are 16-6 so far in May after that 10-12 April. They’re 15-6 at home. After starting out with a .243 batting average in April, the team has picked it up to .263 in May and have almost doubled their home run output for the month. The pitching has dropped April’s team ERA from 4.36 to 4.05 as of yesterday.

So what’s happening? It’s the old baseball maxim about confidence. But there aren’t any individual players on the roster who you can instantly point to and say they’re the reason things are going so well. But the team is playing better and, more importantly, working harder and smarter. There’s been a noticeable improvement in fielding, much smarter hitting, especially in situations with runners on; fantastic baserunning, taking every advantage of their young speed; and solid, confident pitching. And all of that can indeed be traced back to the manager. Molitor’s made a huge amount of difference this year.

That isn’t to say Gardenhire wasn’t a great manager, but I am saying that he’d be good for a team of skilled veterans who know how to win, but hadn’t been working together for a while. Molitor, on the other hand, has proven that hard work on the fundamentals, with hands-on teaching is the way to get things done with this group.

Sure, we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, and there’s plenty of opportunity to struggle through the rest of the season, but I think this team will, at the very least, be entertaining and fun to watch.

And don’t forget that Santana will be back in just over a month…