The Winning Teams: 2008

 

This is part ten 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.

Previous articles in the series: 1965, 1969, 1970, 1987, 1991, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006

 

The Twins did not make the playoffs in 2008. Technically, the 2008 team should not be a part of this series, since The Winning Teams is supposed to be about playoff teams only. But the 2008 Twins came as close as they possibly could to the playoffs, and they were still playing after the regular season schedule ended, so it would be a major oversight to ignore them.

2008 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Twins. After a string of four division titles in five years, Minnesota finished under .500 in 2007. That offseason saw the team undergo one of the biggest personnel shuffles it has ever seen. The changes went all the way to the top, as GM Bill Smith replaced Terry Ryan, the architect of the Twins’ rise to relevance. Smith presided over the departure of two big stars: Torii Hunter signed with the Angels as a free agent, and Johan Santana was dealt to the Mets for four minor leaguers. Meanwhile, Smith also sent P Matt Garza and SS Jason Bartlett to the Rays for IF Brendan Harris, OF Delmon Young, and OF Jason Pridie. In an attempt to fill the constantly gaping holes on the left side of the infield, the Twins brought in a pair of former Astros: SS Adam Everett and 3B Mike Lamb. And veteran junkballer Livan Hernandez joined the pitching staff.

2008 Twins at a Glance
Record 88-75, second in American League Central
Heavy Hitter Justin Morneau, .300/.374/.499, 23 HR, 129 RBI
Ace Pitcher Scott Baker, 11-4, 3.45 ERA, 141 K
All Stars C Joe Mauer, 1B Morneau, P Joe Nathan
Clinched Division Failed to clinch. Lost AL Central Tiebreaker 1-0 to Chicago on September 30.
Postseason Results N/A

The Twins were not the only ones undergoing a major personnel shift in 2008. The United States government experienced a great deal of turnover as well, as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois defeat.ed Arizona Senator John McCain in a hotly-contested election. When they weren’t watching the Twins, Minnesotans had a front row seat to the electoral battle, as the 2008 Republican National Convention was held in Saint Paul. But the biggest stories of the year were economic, not political. A series of big financial companies faced big losses and even bankruptcy, and the United States and the world plunged into a deep recession. Many people tried to turn to their favorite television shows to get away from the unnerving financial news. Unfortunately, a strike by the Writer’s Guild put those shows on hiatus for more than three months.

Despite expectations, the Twins did not go on hiatus in 2008. They started out an uninspiring 12-14 in April, but played over .500 in the other five months of the season, staying right on the heels of the White Sox all year long. Even a brutal 14 game road trip in late August (caused by the need to free up Minneapolis-St. Paul traffic during the Republican Convention) couldn’t shake the Twins. A month later, they found themselves a game and a half back with six to play, and the White Sox in town. In the most crucial series of the year, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn held Chicago down for the first two, and the Twins eked out a 7-6 extra inning victory in Game 3 for the sweep. Four days later, after Chicago won a makeup game against Cleveland, the Twins and Sox finished the regular season schedule tied at 88-74.

The Twins never would have gotten to 88 wins without some surprising performances. Most surprising was the effectiveness of the young starting staff. Baker, Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkin – all aged 26 or less – each won at least 11 games. Francisco Liriano struggled mightily when he tried to come back from ligament replacement surgery, but he pitched very well down the stretch after he was called up to replace the ineffective Hernandez. On the hitting side, Carlos Gomez, one of the players obtained for Santana, provided an unexpected spark. His .258/.296/.360 line was very unimpressive, but his energy and amazing fielding ability excited fans and players alike. Though Denard Span was beaten out for a starting spot by Gomez in Spring Training, Span became another surpise contributer by midseason. His .387 OBP made him an ideal leadoff hitter, and his glove work fit in nicely next to the acrobatic Gomez. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were not surprises at all, since everyone expected them to play well. Mauer won his second batting title with a .328 average. Morneau played in 163 games, hit .300, smacked 47 doubles, and knocked in an impressive 129 runs.

But those performances were not enough to secure a playoff berth. Under an archaic rule, homefield advantage for the tiebreaker game was decided by a coin flip – one that the White Sox won. The Twins had won the regular season series against Chicago, 10-8, but only two of those wins came in the hostile environment of US Cellular Field, home of Game 163.

It turned out to be an exciting duel between two young hurlers. Sox lefty John Danks held the Twins to two hits, and no runs, through eight innings. The only real scoring threat the Twins had was in the fifth, when Michael Cuddyer hit a leadoff double and advanced to third on a flyout, but was thrown out trying to score on another fly ball. Twins’ righty Blackburn matched Danks zero for zero until the seventh inning, when future Twin Jim Thome mashed a long home run.  It proved to be the difference in the game, and Chicago, not Minnesota, went on to face the Rays in the playoffs.

For the Twins, it was a disappointing end to an exciting season. But Game 163 did provide a boost to the always entertaining Twins vs. White Sox rivalry. And 2008 established that the Twins would not be rebuilders for the future. They proved that they could compete with a new generation of young players.

Topics: Adam Everett, Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Denard Span, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, Jim Thome, Joe Nathan, Johan Santana, Justin Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Livan Hernandez, Mike Lamb, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, The Winning Teams, Torii Hunter

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