Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Twins seek to build on momentum, return to playoffs.

Everyone has become accustomed to winning in Minnesota. Following back-to-back division titles and an improbable run in the Season 1 playoffs, fans have come to expect the Minnesota Twins to succeed. So far this season, it had been anything but business as usual, as the Twins struggled out of the gate. An unfortunate injury, however, may have been just the catalyst that the team needed to right the ship and turn its season around.

Following the temporary loss of potential comeback-player-of-the-year Carmine McGee to a ligament sprain in his rib cage, the players and management of the Minnesota Twins held an organizational meeting late yesterday afternoon. The mood was grim, coming off back-to-back extra-inning home losses to the Texas Rangers. After finally putting together a stretch of decent baseball to climb above .500 on the season, those 2 losses had dropped the Twins back to the .500 mark, behind the (now) 31-19 Toronto Blue Jays in the AL North.

At the meeting, the two soft-spoken leaders of the team challenged everyone to rededicate themselves to the tough mindset that had served the team so well in the past. Herbert Lieberthal, 2-time runner-up in the AL MVP race, took partial responsibility for the team's struggles, as his numbers have dipped from all-World to merely excellent.

"Part of it is obviously on me, but without Carmine, and for the rest of the season once he returns, we've all got to increase our contributions if we want to make it back into the post-season," Lieberthal said. "You younger guys have to begin to prepare for the time when you will become the leaders of this team, and you've got to show the fans in Minnesota that you have the heart to make a commitment to them when times are tough. If you do that, they'll love and support you through anything."

All-World, and all-time great, pitcher Chris Y. (CY) Nen addressed the staff. Nen said, "I look around this clubhouse and I see as much talent as anyone has in the league. Jimmy [Kirk] and John [Jang], you guys are staff aces in your own right, and Clay [Bellhorn], you've got the potential to be as good as anyone. Things are still being sorted out in the pen, losing [injured closer] Dario [West] hurt a lot, but the talent is there too. And Dario will be back in a month or so. If we all can add just a little bit extra, just a touch more consistency, then we can really turn this into a great season."

Behind a strong start (5.0 IP, 1 hit, 0 Runs) from Jang, the Twins came out motivated in the final game against Texas last night, seeking to avoid a sweep that would push them back below .500. In the 6th inning, however, the wheels seemed to come off, as it took 4 twins relief pitchers to escape the inning, and they were unable to do so until after the Twins' 8-0 lead had been wiped out. Disheartened, Twins fans watched as their team went down quietly in the bottom half of the inning, leaving the Rangers with a 9-8 lead.

Whether it was Lieberthal's speech of just the internal fire that drives every competitive athlete at this level, the Twins refused to go down without a fight. In the 7th they pushed across 3 runs on a clutch 2-out RBI single by defensive wiz SS Anthony Haney and a 2-run HR by CF Joey Justice. The 11-9 lead would hold, thanks in large part to Matt Crespo, who came on with 1 out and 2 on in the 9th to strike out the two Rangers he faced.

Hoping to capitalize the momentum from this big win and the day off before the next series, Chris Nen asked to be moved up in the rotation to face the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox. In a career that has seen him win 2 Cy Young awards and numerous pitcher-of-the-week award, Nen has thrown many great games, but on Thursday, March 19 in the PM game he made Twins history by throwing the first no-hitter in franchise history, winning a great pitchers' duel 1-0.

After the game, Nen praised his entire defense, singling out rookie 2B Jesus Morales, whose ++ "great play" in the 4th inning kept the no-hitter alive, though at the time no one knew just how important that play would be. "I've always heard people say that 'Jesus Saves,'" Nen remarked, "but I never thought they meant it literally until today." Nen was completely on his game, walking only one batter and inducing 18 ground ball outs - 6 to Morales and 5 to 3B Sidney White. It was also White who drove home the winning (and only) run in the game in the bottom of the 4th by drawing a walk, scoring leadoff man (for one game at least) Don Brock.

The Twins know that they still have their work cut out for them to catch the streaking Blue Jays, winners of 4 straight, but with their newfound momentum and a long season left the 5.0 game deficit doesn't seem quite as daunting.

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