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Opinion

Streaking Twins near playoff berth

Ben Brewster

September 21, 2006

With one swing of the bat, Jason Kubel started the Minnesota Twins off on a tear that would move them from fourth place into the Wild Card lead, and as of Sept. 14, one game out of the division lead.

The date was June 13 — Johan Santana and Curt Schilling had been locked in a pitchers’ duel for eight innings. It remained tied until the 12th when Kubel hit a walk-off grand slam off Boston’s Julian Tavarez. The Twins went on to sweep the series and haven’t looked back since.

Kubel’s grand slam was a dramatic way to start the turnaround, but there were some moves and players that came together at the right time to make it possible.

Beginning in mid-May, Joe Mauer went on a hot streak of his own, and at one point his batting average went as high as .392.

Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer also emerged as middle-of-the-order power threats to compliment Mauer’s on-base abilities. Morneau has done especially well, batting .364 with 23 home runs since June 1, and becoming the first Twin since 1987 to hit 30 home runs in a season.

The pitching at the beginning of the season has been a question mark all year long, with the Twins running out the best starting pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, and perhaps the worst, Carlos Silva, every five days. In addition, Brad Radke’s shoulder is hanging on by a thread, and Francisco Liriano has an injured elbow.

It’s amazing they’ve held it together as long as they have.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has been excellent. Off-season acquisition Dennys Reyes has been dominant, as have midseason call up Pat Neshek, setup man Juan Rincon and one of the best closers in baseball, Joe Nathan.

Everyone has heard about the superstars like Santana, Mauer and Morneau, but sometimes it’s the underdogs who make the biggest difference.

Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett became the starting third baseman and shortstop in mid June, replacing the anemic hitting of Tony Batista and Juan Castro, who hit a combined .233 with 6 home runs and 35 RBI in 334 at bats. They immediately became sparkplugs in the Twins lineup with their slap hitting and above average on-base percentages.

On July 16, centerfielder Torii Hunter was placed on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his foot and replaced by Jason Tyner. Tyner is a similar player to Bartlett and Punto, and along with Luis Castillo the four became a very dangerous group, nicknamed “piranhas” by White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen.

“All those piranhas — blooper here, blooper here, beat out a ground ball, hit a home run — they’re up by four,” he said, referring to their scrappy style of play.

Put it all together and in the span of several months the 2006 Twins have gone from an American League Central bottom feeder to one of the best teams in baseball and a legitimate playoff threat.

Ben Brewster is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2009.