Can Ron Gardenhire Lead the Minnesota Twins to Another Division Title?
Ron Gardenhire has been the most successful manager in Minnesota Twins history—at least during the regular season. With six division titles in nine seasons he has been masterful in winning the American League Central, a division that is often considered one of the worst in baseball along with the NL West.
A horrible start to the 2011 season that has seen every starter in the field placed on the disabled list, with the exception of Michael Cuddyer and Danny Valencia, the Twins were 16.5 games back and in last place when the calendar turned to June.
Since then, in a little more than a month the Twins have shaved off 8.5 games and currently find themselves a mere eight games back of the division-leading Cleveland Indians.
Known as a second-half team, Gardenhire once again may have the Twins poised to win his seventh division title. It would be their third consecutive division title, a feat that Gardenhire achieved when he first took over as skipper of the Twins in 2002.
I looked back at the performance of the Twins in the second half of the season since 2002. There are positive signs that Minnesota can overcome the worst start in Gardenhire's tenure and secure another division title.
Of course, the standard disclaimer does apply—"past performance does not guarantee future gains."
Here are five reasons the Twins can recover and win the AL Central.
The Twins Have a Winning Record After August 1st
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Since Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002 the Twins have an overall record of 142-115 after August 1st—this represents a .562 winning percentage.
Gardenhire's success is even better over the six seasons the Twins have won the AL Central, improving to .603 with a 96-74 record during the dog days of summer.
If the Twins are to make a run at the playoffs they will need to crank it up and play some .600 baseball the rest of the season. That would put them somewhere around 86 wins—enough to win a weak AL Central.
The Precedence of Overcoming Deficits Has Been Set
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In the six division-winning seasons for Ron Gardenhire, only twice have the Twins led the AL Central at the end of July. In the four seasons they trailed they were an average of 3.9 games back in the division.
Gardenhire's best season at the start of August was also his first. On July 31st, 2002, the Twins led the division by 14 games. They would finish the season going 29-24, winning the division by 13.5 games.
On the other side, Gardenhire's biggest deficit came in 2006 when the Twins found themselves 8.5 games back of the division-leading Detroit Tigers.
He would guide the Twin to a 35-23 record to close out the season, catching the Tigers and winning the division by a single game. That year the Tigers would still make the playoffs as the AL Wild Card, eventually losing the World Series in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. That year the Cardinals' 83 wins became the fewest for a World Series champion after a full season of play.
The Twins Have Only 12 Games Left with the Beasts of the East
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In order to win the division the Twins will have to have another torrid second half of the season to catch the Indians and Tigers.
The good news is after July the Twins have only 12 games left against the AL East this season, and 11 of those will be at Target Field.
The Boston Red Sox will be here August 8th for a three-game series, while the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles come in for back-to-back four-game series on August 18th. The Twins will make up a rainout at Yankee Stadium on September 19th.
The better news is the Twins have the bulk of their schedule against the AL Central, where Gardenhire has a .575 winning percentage since 2002.
So far this season, as lousy as the Twins have played, they still have a winning record within the division.
The Return of Morneau, Young and Kubel Should Provide a Lift
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The Minnesota Twins have gotten a lift with the returns of Joe Nathan and Jim Thome from the disabled list, and things should continue to improve once they get Jason Kubel, Delmon Young and eventually a healthy Justin Morneau.
In his last four appearances Nathan has allowed only one earned run on a single hit with four strikeouts. In the Milwaukee Brewers series at Target Field he had consecutive outings, pitching a perfect eighth inning.
Thome's return has also reaped benefits for the Twins. He has two home runs and four RBI in his last two games.
Before being placed on the disabled list with a sprained foot, Jason Kubel was leading the Twins with a .310 batting average and 30 RBI. If he can pick up where he left off it will provide another huge lift for the team.
As for Morneau, we've learned that he has not been completely healthy since suffering a concussion last July. While the symptoms of the concussion have passed, he has been dealing with a herniated disc in his neck that caused pain and numbness in his arm and fingers. His return from surgery to remove disc fragments is expected sometime in mid-to-late August. There's still a chance that Morneau could return to the form in 2010 when he was hitting .345 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 81 games.
To address it before anyone asks, "What about Denard Span?" his return may cause a dilemma, as Ben Revere has taken over in center field providing solid defense, and decent production at the plate.
The Rest of July Looks Favorable
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Minnesota is currently eight games behind the Cleveland Indians as the day dawns on our nation's birthday.
Looking at the remaining schedule for the month of July the Twins have a great opportunity to whittle that down even more.
With 16 games against division opponents the Twins could find themselves as close as five games when the calendar turns to August.
The key will be the last eight games before the All-Star break with four against the Tampa Bay Rays at home, and four on the road in Chicago against the White Sox, with the Twins leading that series 4-0 this season.
The second half opens up with 12 straight home games against the Kansas City Royals, Indians and Tigers—a great time to flex their home-field advantage and pick up ground in the AL Central.
If manager Ron Gardenhire can keep the Twins close, and contend for another division title, he should be considered for AL Manager of the Year. This would represent a much greater achievement in the face of all the struggles the Twins have faced in 2011 compared to when he won it last season.