Top 11 of ’11, Part III


And now for the thrilling conclusion of the Top 11 Moments of 2011 Countdown.

As noted above, this is a countdown, and countdowns are usually best read in reverse order. So if you haven’t read the first two parts yet, you can find them here and here.

#3: Bert Blyleven Inducted into the Hall of Fame

Bert Blyleven was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 14 years – a period of time that rivaled his 22 year career. For years it seemed that he wouldn’t get in. Though he racked up some incredible career numbers, such as 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts, he rarely stood out as an elite pitcher. His curveball always kept opposing hitters off balance, but his most powerful weapons were longevity and durability. Sadly, the voters overlooked those attributes year after year. But in 2011, amidst a rising tide of pro-Blyleven sentiment that built over the years (at least in part because of his popularity as a broadcaster), the voters finally came to their senses and elected the Twins hurler into the Hall.

In honor of Blyleven’s induction, the Twins finally got around to retiring his number 28 in a ceremony at Target Field on July 16th.

Blyleven was officially inducted into the Hall eight days later, along with infielder Roberto Alomar and executive Pat Gillick. His speech was a short one, filled with the same folksy self-deprecation that he uses every night in his broadcasts. The best line in the speech: “I guess you could say I was kind of like Forrest Gump. He ran, I threw.”  

#2: Jim Thome‘s 600th Home Run

While Blyleven had to wait nearly two decades for his call to the Hall, Jim Thome had better book his flight as soon as he is eligible. In 2011 the 40 year old slugger became the oldest superstar in Minnesota professional sports as soon as Brett Favre (finally) retired. But unlike Favre, Thome’s second year in Minnesota was productive on the field, and scandal-free off it.

On August 15th, with the team’s playoff hopes essentially destroyed, Thome gave Twins fans one last reason to cheer. Actually, two. In the sixth inning of the game in Detroit, he smashed an opposite field shot for career home run #599. Rather than allow a long, drawn-out guessing game about when #600 would occur, Thome hit it in his very next at bat in the very next inning. Like the previous one, it was an opposite field shot. #600 gave the Twins a 9-5 lead, and they held on to win 9-6. You can see the video of the milestone homer here, along with a pretty interesting montage of Thome’s greatest career homers (Warning: if you watch the whole video, you will have to suffer through a Hawk Harrelson “PUTITONTHEBOARD” call).

Ten days later, Jim Thome was gone, traded to his original team in Cleveland. But he had plenty of time to make a big impression on the Twins. If you haven’t heard about how friendly and personable Jim Thome is, you haven’t been paying attention to Twins baseball in the pst two years. He’s a great guy, and a great hitter, and the Twins were lucky to have him for even a short while.

#1: Francisco Liriano‘s No-Hitter

Francisco Liriano toed the rubber on May 3rd with a 1-4 record and a 9.13 ERA. There were rumors he was in danger of losing his job in the starting rotation. After reporting to training camp out of shape, his first month of the season was an awful struggle, in which he seemed to have multiple runners on base every time he held the ball. In his entire career, he had never thrown a complete game, much less a shutout.

So it was absolutely shocking when he held the White Sox not only scoreless, but hitless. Through nine heart-pounding innings, Liriano stymied the Sox with his effective wildness. He used a career high 123 pitches – thanks in part to the six walks he issued. Opposing pitcher Edwin Jackson was almost as dominant, with the only Twins score coming on a Jason Kubel solo homer. Thus, Liriano was constantly in danger of losing not just the no-hitter, but the game as well.

In the ninth inning, Brett Morel grounded out to short before Liriano walked Juan Pierre. The next batter, Alexei Ramirez, popped out, again to short. The slumping Adam Dunn was the last man up, but Liriano had trouble retiring him. He ran the count full before Dunn slapped a line drive. But shortstop Matt Tolbert snagged it, and the game was over. 

Liriano had proved that even in a season where nothing seems to go right, it’s still worth your time to watch the Twins. You never know if you’ll witness something amazing.

There have been 272 no-hitters in Major League history, but only eight 600 home run hitters. So why is it that Francisco Liriano tops this list? The most important reason is that Liriano’s feat was completely unexpected. We all knew Thome would get to 600. But anyone who predicted Liriano would throw a no-hitter that night in May would have been diagnosed as a psychotic. It came completely out of the blue. And while Thome’s feat came after the Twins season was already lost, Liriano’s gave delusional fans (like me) some hope that the team could turn things around. So while Thome’s accomplishment was more impressive and more significant, Liriano’s was the most memorable moment of 2011.

Do you agree or disagree? Let me know. Use the comments field below to tell me what you think are the top moments of 2011.