This is part seven in a series examining every Twins team that has made the playoffs. Whether the current version of the Twins is 20 games over .500 or stuck in last place, fans can always hold onto memories of successful teams past.
The 2003 Twins looked to pick up right where they left off after a succesful 2002 campaign. The 2002 squad had ushered in a new era of competent baseball, setting a trend of division title contention that has continued unabated to the present. In ’03 they kept up that trend while establishing a couple of other patterns the modern Twins fans know all too well: a late-season comeback and a disappointing ALDS loss.
The Twins took the lead in the AL Central in May, and looked like they would hold onto it all year. But it didn’t last. Poor play in June and July, including an 8 game losing streak right before the All Star Break, dragged the team below .500. On July 16th, the Twins were 44-49, 7.5 games behind the surprising Kansas City Royals. That day, they sent Bobby Kielty to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Shannon Stewart, who instantly rekindled the team’s spark and led a 46-23 second half surge.
|2003 Twins at a Glance|
|Record||90-72, first in American League Central|
|Heavy Hitter||Doug Mientkiewicz, .300/.393/.450, 38 2B|
|Ace Pitcher||Johan Santana, 12-3, 3.07 ERA, 169 K, 158.1 IP|
|All Stars||P Eddie Guardado|
|Clinched Division||September 23, with 4-1 win over Cleveland|
|Postseason Results||Lost to Yankees in ALDS, 3-1|
In February of 2003, a few weeks before pitchers and catchers reported, the nation mourned the loss of seven brave astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia, which exploded over Texas during its return flight. Later, as the Twins were tuning up their roster in Spring Training games, Operation Iraqi Freedom began with an aerial campaign against Baghdad, a move that generated almost as much controversy as the decision to let David Ortiz leave via free agency. In mid-August, while the Twins were busy lighting up the Kansas City Royals, New York City went completely dark. Meanwhile, the final saga in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, grossed $1,118,888,979 at the box office – approximately 20 times the Twins’ 2002 payroll of $50.5 million.
While the Twins couldn’t hope to be as succesful as the heroes of Middle Earth, there was reason for optimism in the pitching staff heading into the 2003 season, as Brad Radke and Joe Mays, two pitchers who had injury-plagued ’02 seasons, were fully healed. Together with Eric Milton, the Twins appeared to have a very solid starting rotation. But Milton suffered a serious knee injury in Spring Training, and the Twins had to scramble for a solution. They signed veteran lefty Kenny Rogers, who teamed with Rick Reed to give the team two 38 year old starters, neither of whom were particularly overpowering. The starting rotation sputtered all season long; none of the five regular starters (Radke, Reed, Rogers, Mays, and Kyle Lohse) had an ERA lower than Radke’s 4.49. Reed, a 15 game winner in 2002, stumbled badly with a 6.12 record and ugly 5.07 ERA that cost him his starting job in August.
But the bullpen was as stable as the rotation was shaky. Eddie Guardado saved 41 games and LaTroy Hawkins posted a sleek 1.86 ERA as a setup man. Ultimately, it was a reliever who bailed out the rotation as well. 24 year old lefthander Johan Santana began the season in the bullpen, but his powerful fastball and devastating changeup promoted made him the team’s most dominant starter by summer’s end.
Stewart hit .322 after coming over from Toronto. Other than his consistent presence at the top of the lineup, this team had some very disappointing hitting. Torii Hunter hit 26 home runs, but saw his average drop to .250 and his OBP to .312. LF Jacque Jones, 3B Corey Koskie, and 1B Doug Mientkiewicz all hit .300 or higher, but none posted the power numbers expected from those positions. But this group somehow scored 801 runs, more than enough to win the weak Central Division. The Twins seized the division lead in mid September with an 11 game winning streak and ultimately won by four games.
In the ALDS, the Twins were treated to their first ever playoff encounter with the New York Yankees. Winners of five of the last seven AL Pennants, the Yankees were heavily favored over the Twins, relative newcomers to the postseason. Fortunately, Santana managed to hold them scoreless in Game 1. Unfortunately, he left the game after the fourth inning with an injury. The Twins held on to win 3-1, but the loss of Santana seemed to deflate their hopes of victory. New York easily won the next three games, holding the Twins to a single run in each contest.
2003 was a roller coaster season, with early success, midseason disappointment, a late surge, and ultimate disappointment. But the 2003 team proved that Minnesota was more than a one season wonder. The Twins would be a team to be reckoned with in the American League.