Are the Twins ready to beat the big boys?
MINNEAPOLIS – David no longer lives here.
He moved out a while ago. To assert otherwise – to say these Minnesota Twins live down to the enfeebling stereotype that they are the little pipsqueak to the New York Yankees’ Goliath, that they’re just a bunch of slap-hitting ninnies who subsist on a low payroll and win with scrap and grit and lots of other hollow-meaning words and will do what they do so well and submit to the Yankees in their American League Division Series matchup that starts Wednesday night at 8:37 ET – wouldn’t just be unfair. It would be wrong.
These are not, as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen so lovingly described Minnesota’s 2006 team, “the piranhas” – the annoying squirts that nip-nip-nip you to death. The Twins carry a payroll over $100 million. They acquired just as many impact players at the trading deadline as the Yankees. And this offseason, they outspent New York nearly 10-to-1.
Granted, $184 million of the $198.4 million went to Joe Mauer(notes), the reigning AL MVP and franchise catcher. That contract alone, however, showed that the Twins are a long way not just from the threat of contraction nine years ago but recent years in which they were stereotyped as a team that succeeded due more to fundamentals than talent.
“Regardless of how much money we spend, how many people we bring in, how much we look like them, we play good baseball,” said Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson(notes), whose offseason acquisition fortified the team’s infield. “They know we have a good team. We know they have a good team. Things have just gone their way.”
That’s a kind way of putting it. Since reaching the AL Championship Series in 2002, the Twins have returned to the playoffs four times. The first two ended in 3-1 series losses to New York. Last year, the Yankees swept the Twins. It is a sensitive subject in the Twins’ clubhouse. Baseball demons are a bear to exorcise.
When the Twins found out Sunday they’d be facing the Yankees in the first round again, manager Ron Gardenhire refused to talk about them. He’d do it Tuesday, he said, and that was telling: the Yankees turn the rough, gruff Gardenhire’s skin to tissue paper.
“Yes, we’ve had our issues with them. We haven’t beaten them,” he said, finally, on Tuesday. “All of those things are out there, it’s easy to see if you look at the records. But we had so many chances. It is about making a play against them, making a pitch against them. They get it done, they find a way and that’s what we have to do. We have to find a way.”
It’s through wholesale changes that the Twins believe they match up with New York once and for all. Even without two of their four best players, first baseman Justin Morneau(notes) (concussion) and closer Joe Nathan(notes) (Tommy John surgery), the Twins finished the regular season with 94 wins to the Yankees’ 95.
Mauer, fighting more injuries than the “Jackass” guys, hit .373 in the second half. Jim Thome(notes), signed for the best $1.5 million spent this offseason, led the major leagues in OPS after the All-Star break. Rookie Danny Valencia(notes) finally stopped the Twins’ revolving door at third base. Delmon Young(notes) had a breakout season. Hudson and J.J. Hardy(notes) formed a defensive wall up the middle, allowing ground ball maestros Francisco Liriano(notes) and Carl Pavano(notes) to reinvigorate their careers. Sensing a lack of bullpen depth, general manager Bill Smith traded prospects for a pair of closers, Matt Capps(notes) and Brian Fuentes(notes), a solid rejoinder to the Yankees’ deals for bigger-name Kerry Wood(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes).
They maneuvered like the big boys.
“I still don’t think we’re considered a big-market juggernaut,” Twins outfielder Denard Span(notes) said. “People don’t see us like a New York or Chicago. You can’t consider us a small market, like we were 10 years ago, because this organization has made strides.”
Not just success-wise. Minnesota, suddenly, is a destination. Target Field is the antithesis of the Metrodome, a gorgeous ballpark that infuses the team with cash. They’ve shown they’re willing to spend. Few, if any, teams develop players as well as the Twins. And the fans return those favors with tremendous loyalty, the sort that positions Minnesota to become the St. Louis of the American League: a team in middle America with a mid-sized market that nonetheless comports itself among the titans.
Beating the Yankees would reinforce that. The Twins were spoiled with two World Series victories over a five-year span. They’ve clawed ever since to return. And with home-field advantage and the Yankees’ lack of pitching depth resigning them to a three-man rotation, now seems as good a time as any.
“The perception is that we’re a good team,” Hardy said. “I don’t think anyone really feels comfortable playing us. There’s a lot of veterans on that [Yankees] team, a lot of guys that have been there and done that. I don’t think we look at it like that.
“We look at ourselves as a team that can go out there and beat ‘em.”
And not with a piddly little slingshot, either.