The Winning Teams: 2009

This is part eleven 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, 2008

 

Fresh off a disappointing end to the 2008 campaign, the 2009 Twins had something to prove. The team that had dominated the AL Central for nearly an entire decade was in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight season.

The world economy also slumped in 2009. In the United States, unemployment skyrocketed over 10%. The country got a bit of a morale boost, though, when Navy snipers rescued an American sea captain from Somali pirates in April. The Twins also did well against Pirates that year – they took two out of three from Pittsburgh in an interleague series. In 2009 the world tuned in as the first African American U.S. president was inaugurated, and the nation was briefly captivated by a boy in a runaway balloon. But pop star Michael Jackson arguably grabbed the most media attention of anyone. When the troubled singer died in June, a firestorm of non-stop coverage erupted in tabloids and on television.  

2009   Twins at a Glance
Record 87-76, first in American League Central
Heavy Hitter Joe Mauer, .365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI
Ace Pitcher Scott Baker, 15-9, 4.37 ERA, 162 SO
All Stars C Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau, P Joe Nathan
Clinched Division October 6, with 6-5 win over Tigers in Game 163
Postseason Results Lost to Yankees in ALDS, 3-0

Back in Minnesota, the year started on a sour note, especially for catcher Joe Mauer. During Spring Training, he was diagnosed with inflammation in his spine. The injury cost him the first month of the season. But he returned with a bang on May 1st. Mauer swatted a home run in his first at bat of the season against Kansas City, and he never looked back. In May he hit an astounding .414 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs – numbers that were unusual even for a two time batting champion. His average hovered over .400 well into June, and the power continued. When all was said and done, Mauer was hitting .365 – the second highest average in Twins’ history behind Rod Carew’s .388 in 1977 – with 28 homers. He led the American League in average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and he easily won the AL MVP Award.

Mauer was the best hitter on the 2009 roster, but he was far from the only good one. Jason Kubel had a breakout year with 28 homers and a .300 average. Michael Cuddyer had the best power output of his career with 32 longballs. And Denard Span was an excellent leadoff hitter with a .392 OBP and 23 steals. Despite those performances, the Twins’ lineup had plenty of holes. 3B Joe Crede, OF Delmon Young, OF Carlos Gomez, SS Nick Punto, and 2B Alexi Casilla all had disappointing seasons behind the plate. Justin Morneau’s season was disappointing, too. Not because he hit badly (he socked 30 homers), but because a stress fracture in his back forced him to miss most of September and all of the postseason, but not before his average dropped more than 30 points as he battled the pain. Overall, though, the Twins were a solid hitting club that finished third in the AL in batting average, fourth in OBP, and fourth in runs scored.

It’s a good thing the hitting was so good, though, because the pitching left something to be desired. Scott Baker won 15 games despite a slow (and injury-riddled) start to the season, and Nick Blackburn’s up and down year evened out to an 11-11 record and a 4.03 ERA. But the rest of the staff was in constant chaos. Kevin Slowey was on pace for 20 wins (despite an alarming 4.86 ERA) before a  wrist injujry ended his season in June. Francisco Liriano was healthy but very disappointing, posting an ugly 5-13 record and a 5.80 ERA. The Twins ended up using a team record 24 pitchers during the course of the season. Such illustrious names as Sean Henn, Armando Gabino, and Bobby Keppel graced the mound for the Twins in 2009. Late season acquisition Carl Pavano was helpful in ending the trial and error pitching auditions, but the mound situation remained a mess.

So it was not a big surprise that the Twins trailed the Tigers by 7.0 games in the standings on September 6. Strangely, the Twins did not give up, and the Tigers could not quite pull away. The Twins caught fire in mid September, winning 18 of their last 26 regularly-scheduled games. Detroit had a chance to dagger the late-season comeback when the Twins visited the Tigers for four games in the last week of the season. But the Twins eked out a series split, then swept the Royals to end the regular season tied for first place at 86-76.

Thanks to a new rule, and the Twins’ 11-7 season series victory over the Tigers, Game 163 was played in Minnesota. The game should have happened on Monday, October 5th, but it had to be moved to the following day, because Brett Favre and the Vikings needed to use the Metrodome on Monday night to beat down the Green Bay Packers.

The result was a game that MLB Network declared the 16th best of the television era, as the Twins made Favre’s high-profile shootout looke like a warmup act.

The last regular season MLB game the ‘Dome would ever see started badly when Scott Baker allowed three runs in the third, but by the seventh, the Twins had clawed their way to a 4-3 lead. Magglio Ordonez eliminated that lead with a solo shot in the eighth. The game went into extra innings, but a Brandon Inge 10th inning double put the Twins on the ropes. No problem – Matt Tolbert came through with an RBI single in the bottom of the inning. In the 11th, the Twins faced a seemingly insurmountable threat, as the Tigers loaded the bases with just one out. After a controversial non-call on a (possible) hit by pitch, Inge grounded out 4-3. Keppel then struck out Gerald Laird  to end the inning. In the bottom of the 11th, weak-hitting Casilla came through bigtime with a single to score the equally weak-hitting Gomez and win the game in dramatic fashion.

Game 163 was such an emotional and physical drain that the Twins seemed ill-prepared for the ALDS in New York. They lost 7-2 in New York the day after the exciting tie-breaker, and they never regained any momentum. The weak hitters who had come through in the tiebreaker couldn’t sustain the magic, and the Twins lost in three games. It was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise incredible season.

Tags: Alexi Casilla Bobby Keppel Carl Pavano Carlos Gomez Delmon Young Denard Span Jason Kubel Joe Crede Joe Mauer Joe Nathan Justin Morneau Matt Tolbert Michael Cuddyer Minnesota Twins Nick Blackburn Nick Punto Scott Baker The Winning Teams

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