Now they’ll get a chance to see which team can carry that play into the postseason when the clubs begin their best-of-five AL division series Tuesday afternoon at the Metrodome.
The Twins recovered somewhat from a terrible start to go 47-39 before the break, but they trailed AL Central-leading Detroit by 11 games. Minnesota, though, surged to a stunning 49-27 mark the rest of the way.
Tied with the Tigers heading into the final day of the regular season after losing back-to-back games to Chicago, the Twins beat the White Sox 5-1 on Sunday and then waited while the Tigers went to extra innings against Kansas City. Detroit lost 10-8 in 12 innings, giving Minnesota its fourth division title in five years and capping a remarkable comeback.
After a 25-33 start, Minnesota finished 71-33.
“You couldn’t even script something like this,” Twins backup catcher Mike Redmond said. “To think this team could come out and win the division from where we came from … I think we have a flair for the dramatic, man.”
The A’s finish was a little less dramatic, having clinched the AL West last Tuesday. Oakland was happy to end the season with an 11-10, 10-inning victory over the Los Angeles Angels after dropping six of its previous eight games.
“Our team feels pretty good about themselves,” said A’s manager Ken Macha, whose club had 17 hits in the win, its second-highest total this season. “They should, having won a bunch of games and the division.”
Macha’s team went 48-26 after the All-Star break—giving Oakland a better winning percentage than Minnesota in the second half—after beginning the season 45-43. The second-half charge was typical for the A’s, who have gone 244-123 after the All-Star break in reaching the playoffs five times since the start of the 2000 season.
Oakland, though, faces a major challenge in not having home-field advantage in this series. The A’s went 44-37 on the road, but will have to win at least one game in the raucous Metrodome, where the Twins compiled a major league-best 54-27 home mark.
The A’s went 1-5 in Minneapolis this season, including a three-game sweep from April 11-13—an early season series that the Twins came into with a 1-5 mark.
Making matters much worse for Oakland on Tuesday will be the presence of Johan Santana (19-6, 2.77 ERA) on the mound. The Twins were one of baseball’s surest bets when their ace left-hander pitched at home this season, going 17-0 in his starts. Santana was 12-0 with a 2.19 ERA in those games, walking 22 and striking out 129 while holding opponents to a .216 average.
“If you see the word ace in the dictionary, his picture would probably be by it,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “That’s exactly what you want in a pitcher.”
Santana looked ready for the postseason Tuesday, allowing two runs and seven hits over eight innings in a 3-2 home win over Kansas City. The Cy Young front-runner threw 67 of his 94 pitches for strikes, walking none and striking out five.
While Santana’s career postseason numbers of 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 games — four starts—aren’t as stellar as his regular season stats, he was dominant in his last playoff experience. In Minnesota’s four-game division series loss to the New York Yankees in 2004, he went 1-0 with a 0.75 ERA in two starts.
Santana beat Oakland 2-1 on June 2 in his only start against them this year, giving up one run and two hits over eight innings while walking none and striking out nine. That performance followed a three-hitter against Oakland in a 1-0 victory Aug. 12, 2005.
The left-hander is 4-1 with a 3.19 ERA in 14 games—seven starts—against Oakland.
The A’s will try to counter Santana with playoff-tested Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83), who went 10-3 with a 2.97 ERA in 17 road starts this season.
The left-hander pitched very well in his last outing Thursday at Los Angeles, holding the Angels to one run and seven hits over six innings, but didn’t get any support in a 2-0 loss. He walked one and struck out five while surpassing 220 innings for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
“I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent, and I’ve been durable, which is always a huge goal for me going into the season,” said Zito, who’s 3-2 with a 2.76 ERA in five playoff games, with 32 strikeouts and 11 walks in 32 2-3 innings.
The A’s ace is 4-4 with a 3.58 ERA in 11 starts against the Twins, including wins in three straight starts, posting a 0.84 ERA in that span. He pitched seven innings of four-hit ball in a 4-0 victory over the Twins on June 1, his only game against them this season.
Zito will try to continue that success against a Minnesota club that led the majors with a .287 batting average. Joe Mauer hit .347 with 13 homers and 84 RBIs to become the first AL catcher to win the batting crown. He’s 3-for-6 in his career against Zito.
Twins first baseman Justin Morneau will get MVP consideration after batting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs, second only to Boston’s David Ortiz in the AL. Center fielder Torii Hunter is also surging, hitting .319 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs since Sept. 2.
Oakland hit just .260 during the regular season, but hopes slugger Frank Thomas can continue his revival by extending his surprising success against Santana. The designated hitter, who rebounded from two injury-plagued and ineffective years with Chicago to hit 39 homers and drive in 114 runs with Oakland this season, is batting .375 (6-for-16) with a double and two homers against the left-hander.
Minnesota took the season series with Oakland 6-4. The teams’ last postseason meeting came in the 2002 division series, won by the Twins in five games.
Oakland is making its first playoff appearance since losing four straight division series from 2000-2003. The A’s haven’t won a postseason series since sweeping Boston in the 1990 ALCS.
Game 2 will be Wednesday afternoon at Minneapolis.