Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twins Struggles of Late Seemingly Meaningless

Minnesota sports fans are extremely loyal. We've sold out the Xcel Energy Center for every single Wild home game since hockey came back to our wonderful state. Target Field has seen more than 3 million people during this Twins season. Sure, it helps that it's a beautiful, brand-new stadium, and the Twins are damn good, but 3 million fans is 3 million fans. The Twins have, on average, sold out every game this year. Their attendance numbers have them pegged at 100.7%, which means they've filled the stadium beyond capacity some games. This is because of certain seats being available for some series and not for others, as well as certain seats that simply don't count against the attendance, like partially visually impairing seats. The Twins continue to have no problem finding people to sit in these seats, so their attendance percentage is fantastic. The Vikings are 1-2 but continue to sell out all their home games, which really is a lot more of an accomplishment than most people realize with the economy where it is and the NFL being so damn expensive even just for one game.

This loyalty is great. It's what makes being a Minnesota sports fan fun; unless you're going to a TWolves game, you know at a Minnesota sporting event there will be a good crowd. Even the lowly Gopher football team is drawing fans pretty consistently. It also leads to us Minnesotans having more knee-jerk reactions than most other fan bases. Yes, knee-jerk reactions based on small sample sizes happen in every city; but it seems to me both casual fans and many sports writers tend to panic about small slip ups. I don't blame anyone for this. We've been through probably the two most depressing Conference Championship football losses in NFL History, including last year's debacle in New Orleans. We've seen our Timberwolves, with the entire state behind them, take a Lakers team with four hall-of-famers to the brink of elimination before Sam Cassell and Troy Hudson both had major injuries that cost the Wolves a legitimate shot at going to their first ever NBA Finals, and eventually led to the departure of Kevin Garnett. The Twins have been very good over the last decade, almost always in playoff contention and winning 6 of 9 AL Central Division Championships. But they've struggled every year in the playoffs. That doesn't stop us Minnesotans from being optimistic about our Twins chances this year.

After clinching the American League Central and having a fairly good shot at finishing with the best record in baseball, you couldn't find a negative word about the Twins. Jim Thome graced the cover of SI as the great Joe Posnanski spelled out what a wonderful story it would be for Thome to get his first ring in a city that truly deserved one. Well, since clinching, the team has gone just 2-5, getting swept by Detroit and then basically playing poorly in 2 of 3 games against the Royals. Even with their struggles of late, though, the Twins remain just 1 game behind the Rays and half a game behind the Yankees for the best record in all of baseball with four games left to play. A solid final five game stretch could lock up home-field advantage, but even if the Twins continue to struggle, there's no reason to worry.

Joe Mauer has played in just one of the last seven games as the team continues to be cautious about his knee injury. Jim Thome has barely played due to back issues that continue to flair up. Yes, the starters have been bad this turn through the rotation, but ultimately it's one start out of more than thirty for these guys and after pitching so exceptionally well over the last month, they've earned the ability to pitch poorly in ultimately meaningless games at the end of the September.

In 1987 the Twins lost their final 5 games, with almost all of their everyday players in the lineup, and then cruised to the World Series. Last year, the Twins won their final six games, including one of the most entertaining games in my lifetime, game 163, only to go into New York and get swept in three games. Managers, fans and even some sports writers like to see the team playing well heading into the post-season, and when a team struggles late in the year these people often throw up their hands in frustration. In a sport like football, where each game is so seemingly important, knee-jerk reactions are overlooked and pretty widely excepted. However, that's not the case with baseball. This Twins team has let their play over the last six months speak to their talent level; no matter what happens over the next week, this team won at least 93 games, and could win as many as 97.

Getting this team healthy for the first round, and setting up the playoff rotation are far more important to the Twins than going into the playoffs on a good note. Of course they'd prefer to do all three simultaneously, but the Twins would clearly prefer the health of their starters over winning the last few games if they had to choose, and rightfully so. A week from yesterday the Twins will open up the American League Divisional Series at Target Field, with Francisco Liriano on the mound against either the Rays or Yankees. I expect that game to be the prime-time game, regardless of which AL East team the Twins draw.

Just know, Twins fans, that late-season momentum is vastly overrated, and any Twins fan who remembers the last several years should know that. Let the whole body of work speak to how good this team really is, regardless of how a two-week stretch after clinching the AL Central went. The team is enjoying playing less stressful games for as long as they can, and come playoff time, there's no doubt in my mind this team will be ready to fire on all cylinders. As loyal Minnesota sports fans, we need this Twins team to atone for the Vikings colossal failure eight months ago. Call me crazy, but I think they'll do it. I'm predicting a Twins World Series for the first time in 20 years. Now make it happen, fellas. We'll be cheering either way.