The 2009 Minnesota Twins: An Autopsy of The Playoff Sweep
With a slow grounder to to short, it was all over. The joy of game 163, the September magic, the 2009 season, baseball in the H.H.H. Metrodome, all of it.
It was a good run for the Minnesota Twins and in any evaluation of the season, that needs to be the foundation. The Twins beat their expected wins by six games and won a division in which they were projected to finish no better than third.
But, to borrow a line from the Bard, we come to bury the Twins, not to praise them.
The enduring image from this series, fairly or not, will be Nick Punto's prone form next to third base, his despair palpable to every member of the nearly 55,000 people in attendance.
It was a microcosm of the series—the Twins being so close to a stunning play, but falling just short because of a mistake.
Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus noted that while Game 163 was as entertaining a game as you could possibly ask for, it was not particularly well played. The teams made mistakes left and right and when the dust settled, the Twins had made one less.
And that was on display in this series.
The Twins made several critical mistakes, the umpiring crew made a few, and the Yankees made less than both, which makes it very easy to understand why they won this series.
Rather than go game-by-game through this one, I'll just make a few overarching notes.
Game One was probably the most lopsided game in recent memory, not in terms of the scoreline, but in terms of what it took to get there. The Twins had almost no shot in that game, but it's a credit to them that they threw the series' first punch and forced the Yankees to come back.
That said, it's a lot harder to hold a lead than to get one. To get a lead, one team's pitcher need only hang a curve ball and have the other team's hitter do what most professional hitters do with such pitches: hit them a very long way. 1-0.
Holding a lead involves playing good defense, pitching effectively, and making few mistakes. So you can see why the Twins managed to jump out to a lead in all three games, but were unable to hold them.
Those three things—defense, pitching, and making few mistakes—make a good way to look at the series, specifically the last two. The defense was pretty good overall. There were a few close plays that could have been made, but both teams faced that.
The Twins got excellent work from their starters in this series, and while there was certainly consternation over the lack of Scott Baker, it's hard to blame Gardy ex post facto.
Nick Blackburn has pitched in three of the biggest games the Twins have had in the last two seasons: Game 163 last year, the Saturday start v. Zack Greinke on short rest this year, and Game Two of this series.
In those three games, he has gone a combined 19 IP, 11 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 11 K. When the leverage is high, Blackburn simply steps up. The Twins are 1-2 in those starts, but that's hardly Blackburn's fault.
Carl Pavano, Game Three's loser, was excellent. His nine strikeouts tied a season high and nearly reached his career mark (10) set against the Expos in 2003, so that hardly counts. He located the ball well, got ground balls when he needed them, and kept the Yankees from putting the game away while the offense struggled against Andy Pettitte.
I can understand wanting Baker in there. He is, after all, the Twins best pitcher. However, if Pavano told Gardy he wanted the ball to show his old team what he still had left, I can see how that would sway the manager.
Whether that's how you want a manager to decide who will pitch a critical game can be debated, but it's hard to second guess him too much, given how well Pavano locked down his old teammates.
The bullpen wasn't as good as the starters. As much as Joe Nathan will get skewered for giving up Game Two, he didn't completely bury the team in the way that Ryan Franklin and Jonathan Papelbon did.
Yes, he gave up a two run lead and the Twins lost the game, but at least he gave them a chance to steal a win again instead of giving up three and watching the Yankees walk-off.
That was Jose Mijares' job.
The lefty specialist wasn't all that special in this series. After recording a K/9 of nearly nine this season, Mijares got just one in the month of October. His season WHIP was a very solid 1.18, but his five appearances this month saw him post a WHIP of six. SIX!
Granted, that's what happens when you're called in to face one hitter and you give up a hit instead. Extrapolation can be a wicked thing, but it also reflects how ineffective Mijares was at his job. Get a lefty out, go back to the bench, and wonder what's on the postgame spread.
The rest of the 'pen was fairly unremarkable. Jon Rauch has clearly found himself in the manager's good graces, which is something to watch as the Twins decide whether or not to pursue another reliever this offseason.
All in all, what was supposed to be an area of strength for the Twins in this series turned into an Achilles' heal.
But if this series will be remembered for anything, it will be the mistakes the Twins made, specifically on the base paths.
Punto's mistake cost the Twins a tie in Game Three and Carlos Gomez's blunder cost them in Game Two. Gomez's mistake may look more costly, as the Twins went on to lose that game by just one run, but the magnitude of Punto's can't be overstated.
The crowd in Game Three was dying for something to get excited about. Every Pavano strikeout was met with a roar. Even Nick Swisher walking to first on ball three elicited a powerful cry from the nearly 55,000 fans in attendance.
When Joe Mauer singled home Denard Span to give the Twins their lead, my dB meter maxed out 120 decibels and that was probably on the low side.
That's louder than a jet engine and probably closer to a gunshot at close range.
As loud as the crowd was at that moment, it was that silent when Punto was tagged out at third. At the time I likened it to 55,000 people simultaneously watching small child fall down a staircase; it was that level of shock and horror.
Psyche broken, the Twins never had a chance to get back in the game. I've seen a lot of things happen at baseball games, but I'd never seen a game end in the eighth inning like it did on Sunday.
Whether these mistakes permanently dispel the notion that the Twins do all the little things right remains to be seen. Myths, once in place, are powerful beyond the ken of facts.
Irrespective, they are symptomatic of what cost the Twins this series.
Talent-wise, the Twins were good enough to win this series, but they needed to play mistake-free baseball and get contributions from not only the hitters who had produced all season (Mauer, Span, Jason Kubel, Orlando Cabrera, and Michael Cuddyer) but also from those who had hit well during the Twins' September run (Punto, Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert, and perhaps a resurrection from Jose Morales).
What they got was stellar production from Mauer (.417/.500/.500), Cuddyer (.429/.429/.429), and...Nick Punto? That's right, the goat of game three was the Twins' best offensive threat: .444/.583/.556.
On the other end of things, Orlando Cabrera and Delmon Young (.154/.267/.154 and .083/.214/.167, respectively) were unable to bring much to the Twins' attack, but perhaps no hitter looked more overmatched than Jason Kubel.
An absolutely critical part of the Twins' attack for all of the 2009 season, Jason Kubel was well and truly beaten by the Yankees pitchers. His line of .071/.071/.071 doesn't even fully portray his futility. His 1-for-14 series, among his worst 20 ABs of the season, included nine strikeouts.
I don't mean to take anything away from the Yankees, who played well enough to win each of the three games, but with the exception of Game One, they hardly dominated. The Twins beat themselves as much as the Yankees beat them.
And with that, I think enough dirt has been placed on the coffin of the 2009 Minnesota Twins. A more complete season recap will follow as will a lot of offseason player profiles.
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