This is part nine 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 Twins had a disapointing season in 2005. Not only did they slump to 83-79 and lose the division crown for the first time since 2001, they watched the rival Chicago White Sox march through the playoffs and sweep the World Series. Two promising young hitters suffered prominent injuries, as Justin Morneau sustained a concussion early in the season and super-prospect Jason Kubel missed what would have been his rookie year with a severe knee injury. The Twins pitched well, but their hitters did not hold up their end of the bargain. As losses piled up, chaos descended on the clubhouse, culminating in a fistfight between Morneau and centerfielder Torii Hunter.
But 2006 was a new year. During the offseason, the Twins added some veteran hitters: sluggers Ruben Sierra, Tony Batista, and Rondell White, and top-of-the-order threat Luis Castillo. The Twins were healthy and talented, and they looked ready to destroy the competition in the AL Central.
So it was a complete surprise to many people when the Twins were well under .500 and 11.5 games out of first place by the end of May. But that wasn’t as surprising as what happened afterward: one of the greatest comebacks in Major League history.
2006 was the end of an era for Pluto, which was officially stripped of its status as a planet. Also in 2006, North Korea tested a new long-range missile, the Taepodong II. The launch occurred on July 4th, a not-so-subtle attempt to send a message to the United States. But the message ended up being much less serious than Kim Jong Il intended, as the missile landed harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean. Another dictator, Saddam Hussein, also had a bad year. He was sentenced to death and executed.
|2006 Twins at a Glance|
|Record||96-66, first in American League Central|
|Heavy Hitter||Justin Morneau, .321/.375/.559, 34 HR, 130 RBI|
|Ace Pitcher||Johan Santana, 19-6, 2.77 ERA, 245K|
|All Stars||P Francisco Liriano, C Joe Mauer, P Santana|
|Clinched Division||October 1, with 5-1 win over White Sox and Tigers loss vs. Royals|
|Postseason Results||Lost to Athletics in ALDS, 3-0|
The Twins’ year started out better than Saddam’s, but just barely. Both the hitting and the pitching were completely ineffective. Batista struggled to keep his average over .200, and delivered none of the power the Twins expected. White was an absolute disaster, racking up a .136 April batting average. At shortstop, starter Juan Castro failed to produce. On the mound, two key starters were putting up cartoonishly-bad numbers: by the middle of May, Carlos Silva was 2-6 with an 8.80 ERA and Kyle Lohse was at 2-4 and 8.92. By June 7th, the team as a whole fell to 25-33. It looked like a lost year for the Twins.
But things changed. One by one, the Twins replaced the struggling players with young talent. Silva was exiled to the bullpen and Lohse traded away. Rookies Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser took their place. Jason Bartlett replaced the aging Castro at short. He was joined on the left side of the diamond by Nick Punto, the everyday third baseman once Tony Batista was released in early June. The changes revitalized the Twins, who sliced through interleague play with an eight game winning streak in mid-June. After a loss to Houston ended the streak on June 21st, the Twins started another one, this one lasting 11 games.
Back above .500, the Twins looked like the contender everyone had expected. Unfortunately, Chicago and Detroit were still well ahead at the top of the division, and neither one was willing to give ground. Immediately after the All Star Break, the Twins fell to 12 games back, despite a respectable 49-40 record. So the Twins upped their game again, rattling off another eight game streak, then staying blazing hot through August. By Labor Day, the Tiger lead was down to five.
In September they kept battling. Despite losing Rookie of the Year candidate Liriano to season-ending surgery, the Twins gained ground all month. On September 28, with a 2-1 victory over the Royals, the Twins caught the Tigers, sharing first place for the first time all season. In the final series of the season, the Twins played the White Sox and the Tigers faced off against the Royals. Both the Twins and Tigers dropped the first two games, but in the last game of the season, the Twins rallied to knock off Chicago 5-1. A crowd of thosands remained in their Metrodome seats to watch the thrilling conclusion of the Tigers-Royals game. The Royals prevailed in 12 innings, meaning that the Twins had won the Central Division despite not holding sole possession of first place until after their very last game of the year.
By the end of the year, the Twins had some impressive stats. Joe Mauer had his breakout year. He raked his way to a .347 average and won the AL batting title with a pair of hits in that last game against Chicago. Justin Morneau, winner of the AL MVP award, hit .321, knocked in a league-leading 130 runs, and socked 34 home runs. On August 17th vs. Cleveland, Morneau achieved a milestone no Twin had reached in 19 years by hitting his 30th homer. Torii Hunter soon joined him in that club – he finished with 31. Michael Cuddyer also had his breakout year, slamming 24 homers and collecting 109 RBIs in his first full year in right field.
On the mound, Johan Santana was again the king of MLB pitchers. He won 19 games, tied for the Major League lead, and led the AL with a 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts. His supremacy among aces was challenged briefly by one man – his teammate Liriano. Before his injury, Liriano was a rookie revelation with a 12-3 record, a 2.19 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. When Liriano went down, Bonser picked up the slack and earned the AL Rookie of the Month award in September. Longtime Twins staff leader Brad Radke battled arm problems all year, but he still managed to win 12 games.
For once, the Twins did not encounter the New York Yankees in the ALDS. Instead, New York hosted Wild Card winner Detroit while Minnesota faced the Oakland Athletics. In another nice change of pace, the Twins were actually the favorites in this series.
In Game 1, though, Barry Zito outdueled Santana and the A’s won 3-2. In Game 2, Bonser held the A’s to a 2-2 tie through six, but when Pat Neshek relieved him in the seventh, Hunter made a rare mistake in the field, leading to a two run inside-the-park homer by Mark Kotsay. The A’s never relinquished that lead, and they prevailed 5-2. Game 3 in Oakland was completely anticlimactic. It turned out to be Radke’s last career start, and the last game of the year for the Twins. Radke gave up four runs in four innings, and the A’s coasted to an 8-3 win and a series sweep.
The Twins made an epic comeback in 2006, but they couldn’t come back when it counted the most. Once again, they suffered an early playoff defeat.