Archive for the ‘Minnesota Twins’ Category

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.

Technorati: , , , , , , , ,

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.

Technorati: , , ,

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 clichéd 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.

Technorati: , , , , , , , ,

In 2009, Joe Mauer won the AL MVP award, the Gold Glove for defensive excellence and the AL batting title, he was considered one of baseball’s brightest stars. Just as quickly as he gained notoriety, though, his career went downhill after he suffered a series of concussions. Those concussions quickly led to reduced offensive productivity and defensive reliability.

This year, that’s changed. Joe is back with a vengeance. And then some. Joe’s health (and swing) are back. He’s the Twins’ most consistent hitter. He’s become the American League’s best defensive first baseman. This past weekend, the Twins’ opponent was the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto’s first baseman, Justin Smoak, has had a good year, hitting 38 home runs. He’s considered one of the best defensive first basemen in all of baseball. What I saw this weekend in that matchup was the difference between a highlight reel guy (Smoak) and a consistent professional (Mauer).

In Sunday’s game, Smoak didn’t make the defensive play on a Jason Castro base hit. Dick Bremer, the Twins TV voice for a generation, called it a 7-hop bleeder. It was a ball that should have been caught. Castro likely would’ve beaten out the infield hit. Instead, the ball got through and the Twins runner, Eduardo Escobar, went from first to third on the hit.

Prior to this year, Kent Hrbek was the Twins’ best defensive first baseman of my lifetime. He spoke once about his mindset defensively. He said that his first instinct was to be like a hockey goalie by not letting the ball get past him. After that, his goal was simple. Save the extra base. Save runs. Sometimes, it meant he stole outs and rallies from the other team. Before that, though, he didn’t let the ball get past him.

This year, Joe Mauer has used his 6’5″ frame and his athleticism to not let balls get past him. His range (statistically) isn’t that impressive. Ask his infielders whether Joe’s range has saved their bacon and they’ll tell you that he’s saved them lots of throwing errors. Ask Joe’s pitchers whether he’s saved them outs. They’ll tell you that he’s been the glue that’s held the infield together. Whether he’s making a diving backhanded stop or picking a short-hopped throw, his teammates, pitchers and coaches will tell you that he’s the most consistent defensive first baseman in the league. In fact, this year, Joe Mauer has committed 1 error all season. His fielding percentage over 937 chances is .999.

The Joe Mauer of early in his career is back. The elite-level defensive play has returned. His offensive productivity is back. Perhaps the most overlooked statistic is Joe’s batting average with runners in scoring position, aka RISP, is .321, one of the highest batting averages in the league. Consistently, he puts together great at-bats.

Minnesota has some impressive young 2-way talent. It’s impossible to not think of Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton when that’s the subject. Still, Joe Mauer’s quiet leadership and productivity have been instrumental in making the Twins a highly competitive team with a very good shot at making the playoffs.

It isn’t often that Drudge Report links to a sports article. Drudge linked to this article because there’s a long-simmering feud that’s threatening to boil over. It started when the Detroit Tigers’ Ian Kinsler finally had had enough with the umpiring. Specifically, Kinsler criticized umpire Angel Hernandez, saying “It has to do with changing the game. He’s changing the game. He needs to find another job, he really does.”

According to the Detroit Free Press article, the animosity towards Hernandez is widespread. The article said “One American League executive who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about umpires performances said about Kinsler’s comments, ‘He said what 90% of every other player thinks.'” Later in the article, it said “In a 2010 players survey conducted by ESPN, 22% of those polled counted Hernandez as baseball’s worst umpire.”

The umpires have a major problem on their hands. This weekend, Hernandez is part of the umpiring crew working the Minnesota Twins-Arizona Diamondbacks intra-league series. Earlier in the day, MLB announced that Kinsler would pay a fine but that he wouldn’t be suspended. Prior to the game, umpires said that they’d wear a white wristband in a supposed show of unity with Hernandez. When the game began, only 2 umpires of the 4-man umpiring crew working the Twins-Diamondbacks game wore the white wristband.

The problem Major League Baseball has isn’t just that Hernandez is a bad ump. It’s that too many umpires think that the game revolves around them. Too many umpires have tried upstaging the players after making bad calls. MLB implemented instant replay reviews because umpires made the wrong call too often. In my opinion, there’s a significant drop in the level of professionalism amongst umpires.

The late Steve Palermo, the gold standard for umpires, was disappointed with himself if he missed 5 balls-and-strikes call a month. Umpires like Hernandez frequently miss more than that per game. Let’s look at some epic Hernandez fails, starting with this one:

Then there’s this one:

This isn’t a bad call on a baseball play. This is Hernandez throwing a fan out because he’s thin-skinned:

At some point, MLB needs to address these umpires’ lack of professionalism. Angel Hernandez is a symptom, not the disease.

Saying that this decision is startling is understatement. Minutes ago, the Twins announced that they’d fired Terry Ryan as their GM. Jim Souhan, the longtime Strib sports columnist and former Twins beat writer, summed it up best when he wrote “The Twins’ firing of Terry Ryan feels shocking, but only because of his personality and the organization’s longstanding commitment to loyalty among its most visible employees.”

This isn’t Carl Pohlad’s team anymore. It’s Jim Pohlad’s team. Though they’re father and son, style-wise, they’re miles apart. Carl Pohlad hated paying big money on free agents or to retain the Twins’ own free agents. Jim Pohlad hasn’t hesitated in signing free agents. (Think Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.)

The truth is that the Twins haven’t been competitive in almost a decade. While their farm system has done a decent job of producing position player (decent, not great), their farm system has utterly failed at producing starting pitching or relief pitching. While that appears to be turning around, it’s clear that the Twins’ farm system should’ve produced more All Stars considering the fact that they’ve been drafting in the top 10 in the draft pretty much every year.

TR is a man of integrity but that isn’t justification enough to keep him as the Twins’ GM.

Torii Hunter, one of my all-time favorite athletes in any sport, announced his retirement this week. It’s a sad week for Minnesota sports fans, especially coming so soon after Flip Saunders died way too young of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Officially, Torii retired without winning a World Series Ring or even without reaching the Fall Classic. Hopefully, though, Paul Molitor will hire him as a coach or Terry Ryan will hire him as a minor league instructor to teach young Twins prospects the Twins way. Torii’s outgoing personality and Torii’s commitment to being the consummate professional were instrumental to the Twins’ revival this season.

If you’re a Torii Hunter fan, then you’ve got a lengthy list of Gold Glove-worthy plays that he made. To the national audience, though, there’s only one play that people are likely to remember. This is that play:

In the first inning of the All Star Game in Milwaukee, against Barry Bonds, Torii soared over the fence to steal a home run away from Bonds. Still, there were other plays that Twins fans will remember besides just that catch. Lifelong Twins fans won’t forget Torii barreling through White Sox catcher Jamie Burke in the opening game of a series in Chicago. After that collision, the White Sox played like a timid team. After that collision, the Twins played like they were the home team while sweeping the series.

In December of 2001, Major League Baseball tried to contract the Minnesota Twins but were unable to dissolve them thanks to a judge’s ruling. In February, 2002, I attended Twins spring training. After the workout, I got Torii’s autograph, which I still have. Though Torii was still young at the time, he was respectful of the fans. He carried on a conversation for over 45 minutes while signing autographs. Throughout the autograph session, Torii’s infectious smile shined brightly.

The thing about Torii isn’t just that he was a great athlete or that he was a charismatic leader. Certainly, he’ll be remembered as both of those things. It wasn’t just that he knew how to play pranks in the clubhouse or have fun with his teammates.

The thing I’ll remember most about Torii now that his playing days are over is that he was stubbornly professional. This year, he was essentially the father of the Twins outfield. At season’s end, Torii had taught Aaron Hicks, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario a ton of lessons on how to play the game right, to have fun and to be a professional. Aaron Hicks finally became a major league hitter. In 2013 and 2014, Hicks’ batting average was .201. This year, with Torii’s arrival, Hicks’ batting average improved to .256 with 11 home runs.

Thanks to Terry Ryan’s drafting and Torii Hunter’s leadership, the Twins outfield should be in good shape for years.

In 2012, the Houston Astros gave the Twins a gift when they drafted Carlos Correa. That isn’t a criticism of Correa, who just started his major league career last week. He looks like a fantastic player. When Houston picked Correa, Twins master scout Deron Johnson took little of the Twins’ allotted time to draft Byron Buxton. Asked after the draft why he picked Buxton, Johnson said he’d never seen a player that fast, citing the fact that he watched Buxton score on a sacrifice fly. That isn’t a big deal until Johnson said that Buxton was on second base at the time.

Today, Byron Buxton flashed his speed 3 times. The first time was during his second at-bat, when he hit a one-hop smash to Joey Gallo, the Rangers’ third baseman. Despite the fact that Gallo picked the ball cleanly and made a strong, on-target throw, Buxton nearly beat it out for a hit. The second time Buxton flashed his speed was on his only putout. Playing a normal depth and being positioned in straightaway center field, he made a running catch on Robinson Chirinos’ fly ball in the right centerfield power ally look routine. It wasn’t a highlight reel/Web Gems catch but he went a long way to get to the ball. Buxton made it look easy.

Here’s the third time Buxton flashed his speed:

Why Eddie Rosario hitting with 2 out, Buxton was off with the crack of the bat. Despite the Rangers playing a no doubles defense, Rosario’s drive hit the ground on the warning track. Buxton was past the shortstop when Rosario’s drive hit the warning track. He was at third when the centerfielder, Leonys Martin, fielded the ball. From there, Buxton just glided into the plate standing up.

Yet again, the Golden Era Committee screwed up. Yesterday, they kept the most dominant hitter of the 1960s and early 1970s out of baseball’s Hall of Fame. This year, Tony Oliva fell one vote short of election into Cooperstown.

Think of Tony’s credentials. They’re significantly better than any of the other candidates for the Hall of Fame. Tony Oliva is still the only player in baseball history to lead the league in hitting as a rookie and in his second season. As a rookie in 1964, Tony finished with a .323 batting average. In 672 at-bats, Tony struck out just 68 times or once every 2 1/2 games. Tony wasn’t just a slap hitter, either. That year, Tony finished with 43 doubles, 9 triples, 32 home runs, 374 total bases and a .557 slugging percentage.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg with Tony. Rod Carew won 8 batting titles during his Hall of Fame career. While they were teammates, Tony Oliva was Rod Carew’s batting coach. The man who once hit .388 in a season has often spoken of Tony as the greatest hitting instructor he’s ever known.

This would all be academic if Tony hadn’t torn his knee in August of 1968, the so-called Year of the Pitcher. For more than half of his career, Tony played with a knee that was little more than bones. In 10 full seasons, Tony collected more than 1,800 hits. If not for that knee injury, Tony easily would’ve banged out close to 3,000 hits in his career. He probably would’ve won more than 3 batting titles.

Let’s remember that Sandy Koufax, the man most baseball experts call the best southpaw in baseball history, only won 165 games in his 12 year career. This shows that Hall of Fame voters have made exceptions based on a player’s impact on the game in a brief period of time. There’s no reason not to apply that same exception to Tony.

The Golden Era Committee got this badly wrong. They should be ashamed of themselves. During an interview on MLBNetwork, one of the voters said the problem was that this was a strong class and that each voter could only vote for 4 players. That’s spin and then some.

The problem was that some committee members made a big mistake in not recognizing Tony’s incredible accomplishments.

Twins fans are celebrating today. That’s because Torii Hunter signed to play with the Twins yesterday. In his press conference, Torii emphatically emphasized some typical Torii things:

Torii emphasized the fact that he’s still “got some bullets left”. Anyone that watched him the last 2 years in Detroit knows that Torii’s got plenty left. Whether he’s hitting second or fifth in the batting order, Torii will be a strong veteran presence for the Twins. He’ll also be productive. This isn’t just about Torii returning to the place he started his career.

It’s about Torii mentoring players like Byron Buxton, Danny Santana, Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas. That includes teaching them how to be consistent, reliable professionals both offensively and defensively. Torii doesn’t have the range in the outfield that he had during his Gold Glove years but he’s still a better than average outfielder. Most importantly, his fundamentals are still outstanding.

When Torii and Michael Cuddyer played center and right field respectively, there were seasons when their throws never missed the cutoff man. At that time, the Twins had the best defensive team in the game.

Another point that Torii emphasized was that Minnesota is his last stop in the majors. MLB’s Jeff Nelson made the point that it’s quite possible that Paul Molitor would invite Torii to join his staff when his playing days are done. I can easily picture that. In fact, I’ll state right here that I hope that’s already been agreed upon. Having Torii coach the outfielders would be outstanding.

The Twins have an outstanding offensive lineup. The 2014 Twins had the second highest on base percentage in the AL, the fifth best OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage) in the AL, too.

Clearly, the Twins will use the Winter Meetings, which start this Sunday, to fortify their starting rotation. If they accomplish that this offseason, there’s no reason why the Twins can’t contend for the playoffs in 2015. I know that’s a bold statement but the talent is there or arriving soon.

Yesterday was a fantastic day for Twins fans because Torii has returned. He’ll make them stronger offensively and he’ll help the Twins young talent mature quickly into the team they should be.