Twins 8, White Sox 2
Hunter didn’t even flinch. If anything, the grin on his face got a little brighter. After everything the Twins have endured the last couple of seasons, it’s going to take a lot more than cold water to spoil their party.
“Every year we’ve got to go out there and prove to somebody. But you know what? I like it,” Hunter said after the Twins clinched their third straight AL Central title Monday night with an 8-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
“We’re the underdogs, and we’ve got something to prove every day,” he said. “That’s our motivation, to go out there and prove people wrong.”
The game was all but over after the first inning, when Hunter and Corey Koskie each hit a two-run homer off Mark Buehrle. Though they were forced to play host to someone else’s party, the White Sox never put up much of a fight.
The Twins hung over the railing in front of their dugout for the final inning, and manager Ron Gardenhire inserted Jacque Jones, one of the few players left over from the team that was threatened with contraction, as a defensive replacement so the veteran could be on the field.
After bopping around and hugging for several minutes, they walked toward the dugout to shake hands with the coaching staff. Gardenhire stayed at the end of the line, hugging each player as he came off the field.
A couple hundred Twins fans stood behind the dugout whooping and hollering, and the scoreboard flashed congratulations. It’s the first time in the team’s 44-year history that the Twins have reached the playoffs in three straight seasons.
“They’re all great,” Gardenhire said, referring to Minnesota’s three straight division titles. “It means everything in the world.”
And that was just the start of the party. The Twins donned hats and T-shirts proclaiming them division champions and doused each other with champagne, beer and water in the clubhouse. Someone poured beer over Jones’ head, and several players poured beer down Gardenhire’s back. Not even general manager Terry Ryan was safe; players sprayed him with champagne when he walked into the clubhouse.
But no one minded the mess. Minnesota had to wait for someone else to lose to win its last two division titles; this time they won on the field. Minnesota is the second team to clinch its division this year, joining NL Central champ St. Louis.
“Whenever you are able to win and clinch it, it makes it a little more special than to have to wait around,” Koskie said. “Last year we had to wait around.”
The White Sox, meanwhile, didn’t bother sticking around for the festivities. As if watching Minnesota celebrate in their own park wasn’t bad enough, the loss officially eliminated the White Sox from the playoffs.
Chicago has lost seven games in a row to Minnesota, and eight of nine at home.
“I will admit it stinks watching it,” Paul Konerko said.
It could have been worse. Carlos Silva (13-8) had a shutout going until the seventh inning, when Jose Valentin hit a two-run homer. Silva scattered seven hits over seven innings to win his third straight start.
Mark Buehrle (14-10) got hit hard in losing his second straight start, both to the Twins. He gave up seven runs, four of them homers, and 10 hits in eight-plus innings. He’s allowed a career-high 32 home runs this season.
Buehrle also walked three and struck out three.
“Buehrle is a good pitcher. We had to do something to get us started and we did that,” Hunter said. “And I’m just happy, happy we got it done. THREE TIMES! How about that?”
What makes it even more impressive is that no one, not even some of the Twins, would have guessed they’d be here.
After winning the division last year, the Twins underwent a massive makeover. They lost Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, A.J. Pierzynski, Eric Milton, Dustan Mohr, Denny Hocking and Kenny Rogers in the offseason, and traded Doug Mientkiewicz in July. The White Sox and Kansas City were the preseason favorites to win the division, and Chicago had a half-game lead on July 24.
Two days later, the Twins arrived in Chicago for a three-game series. They had a half-game lead, and extended it by winning the first game. Then in the second game, Hunter knocked White Sox catcher Jamie Burke over with a shoulder block at the plate so hard it would have made Hulk Hogan flinch.
The hit not only left Burke sore, it bruised the White Sox’s psyche so badly they never recovered. They lost seven straight, and 11 of 13. By Aug. 7, the Twins had a seven-game lead and the White Sox were in third place.
Minnesota is now 41-22 since the All-Star break, and has won 11 of 13.
“They do all the things we don’t seem to do,” Buehrle said.
Buehrle is usually tough on the Twins—his 13 wins against them are his most against any opponent—and he said Sunday he hoped to keep Minnesota from clinching while he was on the mound.
But Hunter and the Twins ruined that plan in a hurry.
Hunter, the third batter, was booed loudly as he came to the plate. But he quieted the crowd of 21,991 when he sent Buehrle’s 0-1 pitch into the bullpen bar in right field for a 2-0 lead.
Three batters later, Koskie homered and the Twins had a 4-0 lead.
All that was left was to pop the champagne.
“We’re just going to keep having fun, that’s all we can do,” Hunter said. “We keep doing that, we’ll keep winning.”
Valentin’s homer was his first since Aug. 9 against Cleveland. … Silva is 4-0 in 25 career games in September.