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After tonight’s game, it’s difficult to say that the Minnesota Twins aren’t the best team in the AL Central. This isn’t meant as disrespecting the Cleveland Indians. It’s simply meant as a compliment to the Twins for the season they’re having.

It’s fair to say that Jake Odorizzi, tonight’s starting pitcher for the Twins, didn’t have his best stuff tonight starting out. Meanwhile, Mike Soroka, the Braves’ 22-year-old starter, kept putting up perfect innings the first 3 innings. Unfortunately for Soroka, the Twins tend to figure pitchers out by the 4th inning. That’s what they did tonight.

Bookending the Twins 4th inning rally were Nelson Cruz, who beat out a 2-out infield chopper to start the rally, and Luis Arraez. How appropriate that the Twins’ elder statesman (Cruz) and the youngest Twins rookie (Arraez) would put the Twins ahead 2-0. Yes, the Twins lead the MLB in homeruns but the Twins are very good hitters, too.

Odorizzi settled down and gave the Twins another quality start (6 innings pitched, 1 earned run) but failed to earn the victory. After the Twins’ bullpen let the Braves tie the score 3-3, the Twins got 2 sterling innings from Trevor May, who earned the victory.

Once again, the Braves recorded 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth. Unfortunately for them again, they had to face Luis Arraez again. Arraez broke his bat but the ball landed softly in left field. That prompted Rocco Baldelli to pinch hit for Ehire Adrianza. He picked Miguel Sano be was playing for an extra base hit. Had Arraez gotten an extra base hit, Baldelli said he’d likely have picked a different pinch-hitter. Here’s why I’m thankful Arraez got a single:

I’ve been watching Twins baseball since 1966. Back then, the Twins’ slugger was Harmon Killebrew. The announcers then said that “When Harmon hit them, they stayed hit.” Today’s announcers could say the same thing about Sano’s longest blasts. To steal a phrase from announcing legend Joe Garagiola, Sano “is strong enough to hit it out of any park in America — including Yellowstone.”

This is a special Twins team. Whether they’re good enough to win the Twins’ third World Series championship is another matter. Make no mistake, though, about this. This Twins team is as good as the 1991 World Series championship team, at least thus far.

This year, the Minnesota Twins are playing phenomenal baseball. In fact, after Saturday night’s game, the Twins have the best record in baseball with a 47-22 record. Saturday night, though, things were different because the Twins retired Twins jersey # 7 forever. In an emotional speech, Joe Mauer thanked his fans, his family and especially his parents, his wife and their 3 kids for making his career possible.

After his speech, Joe Mauer threw out the first pitch. This was different because he didn’t throw it to a Twins catcher, which is customary. The ‘catcher’ this time was Mauer’s dad. After Jake Sr. caught the ball, he and his son came together for another emotional moment.

Once the game began, the Twins’ started a little bumpy, with Jake Odorizzi serving up a 2-run homer in the top of the first. By the time he left the game after completing 6 innings, Odorizzi had given up 4 runs, the most runs he’s given up in a game this season. After the game, Odorizzi praised Mauer’s professionalism before adding this:

This Twins team is as good as it is in part because of Joe Mauer. During his last 2 years with the team, Mauer would award game balls for important plays that’d normally go unnoticed in the box score. He’d hand out a game ball for a baserunner who ran hard to second base and broke up a potential double play. He’d highlight teammates for hustling out of the batters box and stretching a single into a double.

This year’s team are making lots of those types of plays, seemingly on a nightly basis. The players that were taught by Mauer’s attention to detail and Mauer’s professionalism are this year’s leaders. That being said, Thad Levine and Derek Falvey have put together a pretty talented team.

This past offseason, the Twins brought in talented veterans like Johnathan Schoop, Nelson Cruz, Martin Perez, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez. Their leadership, combined with young veterans having career years have caused the Twins to jump out to an 11-game lead over the 3-time Cleveland Indians.

This year’s Twins team is a true team effort. Thad Levine put together a deep and talented roster. Jim Pohlad approved the budget to go out and get these talented players. Rookie Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has made one great decision after another. Nelson Cruz has helped hitting coach James Rowson teach these young hitters how to work the count into their favor, which has led to lots of extra base hits. (The Twins are on pace to shatter the MLB record for slugging percentage and homeruns in a season.)

While the Twins lead the majors in home runs hit and slugging percentage, their hitters have struck out just 629 times. Compare that with the fact that they’ve collected 651 hits. No other team in the AL can say that they have more hits than strikeouts. (That kinda sounds like a traditional Mauer year, doesn’t it?)

After his ceremony, Joe Mauer joined Twins great Bert Blyleven and long-time Twins announcer Dick Bremer in the booth for half an inning:

It’s worth your while to watch the entire ceremony, too:

Yesterday, I wrote that the Twins’ winning ways were getting routine. Right now, the Twins are playing extremely solid baseball in all facets of the game. Yes, the MLB Network’s DJ can’t stop talking about the Twins hitting homeruns but that’s just part of the Twins story.

To be fair, the Twins have hit 104 homeruns in their first 52 games. They’ve tended to game-changers or back-breakers. Last week, the Twins hit 8 homeruns against the Angels in their 16-7 victory. That tends to get noticed. Fair enough.

Today, however, was a more typical Twins victory. They hit a pair of 3-run homeruns (1 would’ve been sufficient) in defeating the Chicago South Siders. Jake Odorizzi supposedly wasn’t feeling well so he took his misery out on the White Sox, yielding 1 hit and 1 walk over 5.1 innings while not surrendering a run. That dropped Odo’s ERA to 2.16 while pushing his won-lost record to 7-2. Thus far, he’s been the Twins’ most consistent pitcher this year. BTW, he struck out 9 hitters in those 5.1 innings.

The Twins bullpen wasn’t perfect but they were certainly solid, with Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey leading the way today. Duffey pitched 2 innings, giving up 3 hits and a walk while getting all 6 of his outs with strikeouts.

Today was the Twins’ second straight sellout. They’re definitely enjoying themselves, just like the Twins players are having fun. Leading the AL in RBIs and homeruns is fan favorite Eddie Rosario. Here’s his interview with FSN’s Audra Martin:

This Twins team reminds me an awful lot of the 1991 Twins team. That year’s team featured key free agent signings Jack Morris, Chili Davis and Mike Pagliarulo. This year, the Twins added C.J. Cron through waivers, then signed free agents Nelson Cruz, Johnathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez. None of these players were headline-grabbers like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. They’re just great fits with this Twins team.

Finally, the number of unsung heroes continues to grow. When Cruz and Mitch Garver went on the IL (injured list), people wondered if the Twins offense would suffer. It’s understatement to that the Twins offense hasn’t skipped a beat since their injuries. Today’s unsung hero was catcher Jason Castro. Castro called a fantastic game & was steady behind the plate in terms of framing pitches. It isn’t surprising to me that he’s such a valuable piece to the Twins’ winning puzzle.

Go Twins!

Let’s just be clear about something. This year’s Twins team wasn’t expected to have a .686 winning percentage after 51 games. Having a winning percentage that high in 25 games would’ve been considered extraordinary with most Twins fans. Today, the Twins hit their 102nd home run of the season. They’re on pace to hit 324 for the season. That would shatter the MLB record of 267 homers hit by the 1927 Yankees. Actually, it wasn’t set by the 1927 Yankees. It was set by last year’s Yankees. But I digress.

The Twins have won 10 of their last 11 games, with the only loss coming last Sunday in Seattle. That loss has separated a pair of 5-game winning streaks. Last night, the Twins got 7 relatively decent innings from Jose Berrios, with the only blip coming in the 2nd inning, when the White Sox scored 4 runs. That put the Twins down 4-1 at the time. Instead of panicking, the Twins just scored the final 10 runs of the game. The Twins slugging percentage for last night’s game was .750. The Twins’ OPS last night was 1.165.

Today’s game was somewhat of a flat-liner. The Twins jumped out to a 2-1 lead early. Then they put it in autopilot, winning 8-1. Today’s hitting stars were Ehire Adrianza, who got 3 hits and 3 RBIs, C.J. Cron, who got 2 hits and 4 RBIs and Jorge Polanco, who got 2 hits to raise his league-leading batting average to .340. Kyle Gibson, today’s starter, gave up a 4th-inning home run that gave the South Siders a brief glimmer of hope, bringing them to within a run at 2-1.

That glimmer died in the bottom of the 4th, when C.J. Cron singled to left, Jonathan Schoop and Eddie Rosario scored. Later, Ehire Adrianza singled to shallow center, driving in C.J. Cron for the third run of the inning and extending the lead to 5-1.

Adrianza drove in the final 3 runs with the Twins’ only homer of the day to make the final score 8-1. At no point did it feel like the Twins weren’t in total control. What’s eerie in a fun way is the similarities I’m seeing between this Twins team and their 1991 team that won the World Series. That team wasn’t expected to do much. At the end of the year, though, they hoisted the World Series Trophy after Jack Morris’s 10-inning 1-0 shutout of the Atlanta Braves.

Speaking of Mr. Morris, aka ‘Black Jack’, he did the analysis of today’s Twins game. He was part of another team that came from nowhere to win the World Series. That would be the 1984 Detroit Tigers team. That team started 35-5. They became one of only a handful (and I’m talking about a tiny handful) of teams that went wire-to-wire without spending a day out of first place. I’m talking about those Tigers being in first place from Opening Day of the regular season to never trailing in the playoffs.

There’s still 111 games left in the regular season so optimism must be tempered somewhat. Still, it’s indisputable that the Twins are one of, if not baseball’s, elite teams. This team has a ton of talent, albeit unknown talent. If they continue playing like this, where the starting pitching is solid, the bullpen is very good, the defense is consistently excellent and the hitting is elite, why shouldn’t the Twins have confidence in their abilities?

Finally, the Twins are doing this while Nelson Cruz and Mitch Garver are still on the injured list. Further, they got off to this start without Miguel Sano for the first 40+ games. Call me crazy but I think this team is loaded. Here’s Twins manager Rocco Baldelli’s post-game press conference:

The last time the Twins had a rookie manager get off to this good of a start was 1987. Some guy who got along with his players nicknamed TK led that team to the Twins’ first World Series championship.

It isn’t overstatement to call Joe Mauer a Twins legend. He’s the first Minnesotan taken with the first pick in the baseball draft. The only other Minnesotans picked in the upper part of the first round of the MLB draft are in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame; Paul Molitor was picked third overall by the Milwaukee Brewers while Dave Winfield was picked 4th overall by the San Diego Padres. It’s worth noting that Molitor and Winfield were drafted after playing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers while Joe Mauer was drafted first overall right after high school.

Joe Mauer is the only catcher in MLB history to lead the Major Leagues in hitting. He’s also the only catcher to win 3 batting titles in his career. Add to that Joe’s defensive skills and you’ve put together the ingredients for a once-in-a-generation type player and a future first ballot Hall of Famer. Here’s video of one of Mauer’s legendary defensive plays:

I remember that play. I remember thinking to myself “Are you kidding me? No other catcher in MLB history was capable of making that play.” I’m still convinced of that. This play was pretty good, too:

As good as those plays were, this is the best, in my humble opinion:

This article wouldn’t be complete without talking about Joe Mauer’s hitting ability. In his Twins career, Joe reached base more often than any other Twin. That’s quite a statement considering the fact that Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew each had lengthy careers with the Twins. Joe retires as the Twins’ leader in doubles, too.

Finally, the 2019 Twins will miss Joe’s leadership, talent and professionalism. Good luck, Joe.

Thus far this season, the Twins have had 2 stars in their pitching rotation and 2 stars in their lineup. Thus far, they’ve compiled a 7-4 record, which is tied with the Indians for first in the AL Central. On the night that Joe Mauer became the third player to collect 2,000 hits with the Minnesota Twins, Jose Berrios pitched 7 shutout innings while tying his career high in strikeouts with 11. Along with Byron Buxton, they were tonight’s stars.

Berrios had all of his pitches working tonight. His fastball sat at 94 most of the night with good movement. That’s difficult enough to hit on a night like tonight. It’s virtually unhittable when he’s spotting it wherever he wants to put it. Berrios still isn’t 24 years old but he’s looking like a polished veteran this season.

The Twins’ rotation has another workhorse in Jake Odorizzi. Thus far, he’s shown the ability to mystify hitters, throwing his fastball where he wants. That sets up the hitter for his curve. Tuesday night, Odorizzi outdueled and outlasted former AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel. Thus far, Berrios leads the Twins starters with a 2.18 ERA, with Odorizzi trailing with a 2.20 ERA.

Still, the night belonged to Joe Mauer. In addition to collecting his 2,000th hit, Mauer also drove in 3 runs while going 2-for-2 with runners in scoring position. Watch Mauer’s 2,000th hit in this video:

Then compare that with Mauer’s first hit in the majors:

The hits come on opposites sides of 2nd base but they’re virtually identical in terms of Joe’s swing. The only difference between Joe’s first hit and Joe’s 2,000th hit was the location of the pitches. With all of the fireworks, this might mean the most to manager Paul Molitor:

This winter, I spoke with a friend who follows minor league baseball closely. This friend said that the Twins have a ton of minor league arms to put together a strong bullpen for years to come. Thus far this year, Ryan Pressly hasn’t allowed an earned run while striking out 7 hitters in 6.1 innings. Tonight, Pressly’s fastball topped out at 98 mph and his curve was diving. He isn’t a dominant pitcher like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller but he’s got quite the arm.

This time last year, Gabriel Moya was part of the Diamondback’s AA team. This season, he earned a spot in the Twins bullpen. He’ll need some experience but he’s got the stuff to become a reliable middle reliever. His changeup is special.

The way the weather forecast looks, this might’ve been the only game they’ll play in this series. Still, the Twins have to feel good about their start.

As a long-suffering Vikings fan, it’s time for them to end the drought and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving team. On Sunday, Case Keenum, the player who started the season as the Vikings’ backup quarterback, connected with Stefon Diggs to produce the greatest memory in Twin sports history since Dan Gladden raced home in the bottom of the tenth inning of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

The stories are eerily similar, though there are some dissimilarities. For instance, the Twins started the season with a 2-9 record. The Vikings got off to a slow start at 2-2 before starting on an 8-game winning streak. In early April of 1991, Twins fans were skeptical that the Twins could be a .500 team. Thoughts of winning a World Series championship weren’t just distant. With the fans, they didn’t exist. With the Vikings’ defense, there was reason for optimism for the team, although winning a Super Bowl championship in their home stadium wasn’t common.

The similarities start when the Twins took off on a 15-game win streak that ended in Baltimore and the Vikings ran off an 8-game win streak that ended in Carolina. Another similarity was that the teams had great defenses and a couple superstars that played like superstars. Most importantly, Tom Kelly and Mike Zimmer both preached the importance of playing seamless, complimentary ball.

That meant different contributors each night. With the Twins, that meant contributions from Mike Pagliarulo and Scott Leius at third, Chuck Knoblauch at second and Shane Mack in the outfield. With the Vikings, it’s meant unexpected but welcome contributions from safety Andrew Sendejo, defensive linemen like Shamar Stephen, Tom Johnson and offensive linemen like Rashod Hill and Jeremiah Sirles and breakout seasons by Case Keenum and Adam Thielen.

In his 1991 article titled “A Series to Savor“, Steve Rushin wrote this:

For it was only 24 hours earlier that Minnesota centerfielder Kirby Puckett had virtually single-handedly forced a seventh game by assembling what has to rank among the most outrageous all-around performances the World Series has ever seen. Puckett punctuated his night by hitting a home run in the bottom of the 11th inning off Atlanta’s Charlie Liebrandt. The solo shot gave the Twins a 4-3 win and gave Puckett’s teammates the same “chill-bump feeling” Braves manager Bobby Cox confessed to having had in Atlanta, where the Braves had swept Games 3, 4 and 5 earlier in the week to take a three games to two lead into Minneapolis.

Hrbek was reduced to a 10-year-old when the Series was tied last Saturday night; Sunday morning would be Christmas Day. “Guys will be staring at the ceiling tonight,” he said following Game 6. “They won’t even know if their wives are next to ’em. I know I won’t. She won’t want to hear that, but….”

Minnesota hitting coach Terry Crowley was reduced to a doddering man in long underwear that same evening, pacing a small circle in the clubhouse, head down and muttering to no one, “It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

And Twins manager Tom Kelly fairly shed his skin in the aftermath of that game, wriggling from the hard exterior he has worn throughout his career and revealing himself to be, like the rest of us, both awed and addled by all he had witnessed. “This is storybook,” Kelly said. “Who’s got the script? Who is writing this? Can you imagine this?

I’ve now had 2 such moments of watching Minnesota sports that simply can’t be adequately described. They can’t be explained. They must be experienced.

It isn’t understatement to say that Stefon Diggs’ reception and run to the end zone will be seen as a transcendent moment. It’s almost to that point already. Here’s Diggs’ electric play:

Here’s Gene Larkin’s magical moment:

Sunday’s game between the visiting New Orleans Saints and the hosting Minnesota Vikings is an instant classic. We don’t need to wait for history to render its verdict. We don’t need to analyze or overanalyze this clash between the Saints and Vikings. To Vikings’ fans who’ve endured the Super Bowl losses and the heartbreaking finishes in 1998 and 2015, Sunday’s game isn’t just redemption. It’s the game that The Curse was broken.

It’s crazy to say this but the Vikings’ offense, though it didn’t play fantastic, outplayed the Vikings’ defense Sunday. As a result, the Vikings will meet Philadelphia in next Sunday’s NFC Championship Game to determine which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. If the Vikings win next Sunday, they’ll become the first time to play in the Super Bowl played in their home stadium because the Super Bowl will be held in US Bank Stadium.

But I digress.

Case Keenum threw an ill-advised pass down the sidelines that was intercepted. That Saints turned that interception into their second touchdown. The momentum swing was felt throughout Vikings Nation. When the Saints finally took the lead with 3:01 left in the game, Vikings Nation was worried. They felt better when Keenum engineered a drive that put the Vikings up 23-21 but there was too much time left for Drew Brees to work his magic. When Will Lutz kicked the go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left in the game, Vikings Nation again thought the worst. After a false start penalty, the Vikings got a timely catch by Stefon Diggs with 17 seconds left. Because he was tackled in the field of play, the Vikings had to use their final timeout. After 2 incomplete passes, this happened:

The minute Stefon Diggs sprinted into the end zone, Vikings fans attending the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game erupted with joy:

Nobody brings it home like Paul Allen, the Vikings’ radio play-by-play announcer:

Needless to say, the moment left Diggs speechless:

Everson Griffen, the captain of the Vikings’ defense, was speechless, too:

I’ve been a Minnesota sports fan since 1966, when I saw my first Twins game at Metropolitan Stadium. The only moments that surpass Diggs’ touchdown were Kirby Puckett’s walk off home run against the Braves’ Charlie Liebrandt in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and Gene Larkin’s pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

Historical footnote: Jack Buck was the play-by-play announcer for those games. Sunday night, his son Joe Buck was the play-by-play announcer for the Vikings game. How cool is that? Vikings fans will remember where they were when Stefon Diggs broke the tackle, then raced to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Wow! What a game.

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When the stories are written about Minnesota’s sports stories of the year, the Minnesota Twins going from being the worst team in baseball to being a playoff team will certainly be mentioned. In 2016, the Twins finished with a major league worst 59 wins. When this year finished, the Twins had lost to the New York Yankees in a 1-game playoff. The difference between 2016 and 2017 was the coming-of-age of the Twins young stars. Early on, the difference-maker was Miguel Sano. Sano’s homers, like Harmon’s, stayed hit:

The Twins developed an identity of being one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Joe Mauer played Gold Glove defense at first base but wasn’t rewarded. Brian Dozier had an outstanding season defensively and won a Gold Glove for his defense at second base. It was Byron Buxton, though, who led the defense, becoming the first Twin to win the Major League Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to catches that left Twins fans speechless. This catch topped the list:

This was special, too:

Another great sports story is still getting written in US Bank Stadium. In 2016, the Vikings were decimated by injuries. They lost Teddy Bridgewater a week before the season. The offensive line went from a next-man-up mentality to a last-man-standing proposition. Despite that, the Vikings finished 8-8. This year, the Vikings lost their starting QB after an opening game victory. They lost Dalvin Cook during the 4th game of the season. After 4 games, the Vikings owned a 2-2 record. Then they ripped off an 8-game winning streak. This afternoon, they’ll try to finish off a 13-3 regular season. Vikings fans are hoping to finish off cheering for the Vikings in the last game of the 2017 playoffs (in US Bank Stadium.)

The Vikings offense has been fun to watch but the Vikings’ defense has dominated. Defensive end Everson Griffen dominated early. Harrison Smith, aka Harry the Hitman, flashed his skills from time to time. Xavier Rhodes, aka Rhodes Closed, was sterling throughout. We won’t forget this diving, one-handed interception by Smith:

We won’t forget this game-finishing interception, either:

The Vikings are the definition of a team. What other team’s fans would give the back-up quarterback this type of ovation?

The Vikings’ story is still being written. Let’s hope that their last game this season is part of next year’s sports stories of the year.

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Tonight, the Minnesota Twins rewrote the history books, becoming the first team to lose 100 games in a season, then qualify for the postseason the next. If I had a $100 bill for each time I’ve heard a player on a championship-winning team tell the TV interviewer that ‘nobody except those of us in our locker room believed in us’, I’d be a wealthy man. It’s the type of thing that’s clich├ęd and discounted all the time. It’s like the interview with the football GM about their top draft pick saying ‘I can’t believe he dropped to us. He was our top-rated player on our board.’ It’s ok to discount people saying that.

Tonight, Fox Sports North’s Audra Martin interviewed the players after they clinched their playoff spot. Several Twins, including Byron Buxton, the team’s MVP, Brian Dozier and other players said, sincerely, that others didn’t believe in them. This time, in this situation, it’s true that people outside the Twins organization didn’t give them much of a chance to finish with a winning record, much less win the second wild-card spot. Why should they? They’d just finished the 2016 season with a 59-103 record. This year, they’ll finish with at least 83 wins. That’s a 24-game improvement from last year. Minimum. This video has as much to do with why the Twins made the playoffs as anything:

Twins manager Paul Molitor has made some mistakes but he’s been a great teacher, too. During his Hall of Fame career, Molitor was known as having great instincts. The timeless adage about good sports teams taking on their manager’s personality fits with this team.

While the Twins have holes on their team, so do the other AL playoff teams. If I had to pick a favorite going into the AL playoffs, I’d pick Cleveland. Any team that puts together a 22-game winning streak while not allowing more than 5 runs in any of those wins is a formidable team. The Twins, meanwhile, just got swept by the Yankees, their likely wild-card playoff opponent, meaning that the Twins are facing an uphill fight. Regardless of whether they’re eliminated in Game 163 or they make a playoff run, it’s been a fun season. Joe Mauer appreciates how special of a season it’s been:

Twins GM Thad Levine summed up the Twins’ attitude towards winning in the playoffs pretty well:

Good luck to the Twins. It’s been a fun season to be a Twins fan.

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