The Minnesota Twins great run of Division Titles has run its course. From 2002 until 2010, the Twins won the Central Division Title six times in nine seasons (and narrowly missing a seventh title in 2008 in a one game tie breaker.)
It was a remarkable reversal of fortune for a franchise who was rumored to be contracted after the 2001 season only to go on a wonderful post season run that began in the Metrodome and finished in the beautiful new Target Field.
Chances are few will remember the Twins as an October regular moving forward. The team is in full rebuilding mode and the squad never made it to the World Series, only winning the Division Series in 2002. Teams that don’t win it all seldom are remembered. Teams that fail to win the pennant are even more obscure.
But the year the Twins will probably regret letting the pennant slip away the most is 2006.
So many elements were working in the Twins favor that year to make 2006 potentially the greatest and most loved team in Minnesota history.
Yes, greater than the 1991 World Champions, who Jack Morris led to victory in the greatest World Series of the last 30 years.
Yes, more loved than the 1987 World Champions, who looked like a slow pitch softball team and took advantage of a scheduling quirk that gave them home field advantage over a superior Tigers and injured Cardinals squad.
And perhaps even more revered than the 1965 squad who came so close to beating Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in the World Series.
This was a star studded team of stars whom Twins fans could claim as their own.
Johan Santana won his second Cy Young Award that year and was establishing himself as the top pitcher in baseball and a potential Hall of Famer.
Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter was one of the most exciting players in the game, hit a career high 31 homers in 2006 to go with his speed and exceptional defense.
Home town hero Joe Mauer became the first AL catcher to become the batting champion, doing so by hitting at a .347 clip and an OPS of .936.
In fact an argument could be made that Justin Morneau was the 4th best player on his own team. But his .321 average, 34 HR, 130 RBI and .934 OPS helped him win the AL MVP.
Luis Castillo, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Bartlett all were terrific in the lineup while Joe Nathan and Dennys Reyes set up one of the game’s top bullpens.
The 2006 season did not start well for Minnesota. Kirby Puckett, the beloved yet secretly troubled Hall of Famer of the 1987 and 1991 teams, died during spring training. The team itself began the season 25-33 and fell far behind the defending World Champion White Sox and the surprising Detroit Tigers.
But two things happened that ignited the Twins: Francisco Liriano emerged as a second ace alongside Santana. Then the Twins dominated the National League in Interleague Play.
Minnesota took 16 of 18 interleague games and made the AL Central a log jam. Eventually they passed the defending champion White Sox and with a wild September clinched a playoff berth despite losing Liriano to injury.
The Tigers needed just one win against the 100 loss Royals at the end of the season to clinch the Central, but they got swept. The Twins moved into a first place tie and on the last day of the season, clinched the AL Central. Game 162 was the only day the Twins had first place to themselves.
The mad dash for the Central title was more than a formality. The Twins would avoid the Yankees, who knocked them out of the post season in 2003 and 2004 (and would do so later in 2009 and 2010.) Instead they drew the Oakland A’s, a fine team but hardly world beaters.
They would have home field advantage in the Division Series instead of starting on the road in the Bronx. And their luck was further extended as the Tigers dusted themselves off and made quick work of New York, winning in 4 games.
But they ran into two problems: Frank Thomas’ bat and a hit that even Torii Hunter couldn’t catch.
Thomas missed the 2005 post season with injuries and did not play in the White Sox World Series run. Now healthy and with Oakland, Thomas launched two homers in the opening game in the Metrodome. Barry Zito out dueled Johan Santana for a 3-2 Oakland win.
Game 2 was another close affair as Boof Bonser pitched 6 solid innings and the score was tied 2-2 in the 7th. With two outs and a runner on in the 7th, Torii Hunter attempted one of his signature highlight reel catches on a line drive by Mark Kotsay. It eluded Hunter and went for a 2 out go ahead 2 run inside the park home run. The A’s would hold onto the 5-2 victory.
By the time the series returned to a carnival atmosphere in Oakland, the series was knotted up. Oakland jumped all over Brad Radke and cruised to an easy 8-3 victory, the only post season series victory to date for the Billy Beane A’s.
The Twins were out and their great comeback against the Tigers was a footnote. It would be Detroit who would go on to win the pennant and lose to a streaking St. Louis squad.
How would the Santana-Hunter-Mauer-Morneau-Cuddyer-Nathan Twins have fared against the Cardinals that year? Would 2006 be the year that Ron Gardenhire had the honor of being the manager of a World Series winner? Would that have been the moment where the Twins had the final laugh against the contraction rumors?
The Twins would go on to be competitive, winning the Central in 2009 and 2010 but being swept by the Yankees in both years.
But those teams did not have the star power of the 2006 squad. By 2008 Santana was a Met and Hunter was an Angel. By then the Twins seemed like the obligatory entry from the Central, an afterthought rather than a legit pennant contender.
The team in 2006, with the elite players hitting their prime and the comeback and the path cleared by Detroit eliminating New York, had everything align to be one of the great teams and highlights in the history of the franchise.
Mauer would have led his childhood team to the title. He and Morneau would have formed the new “M&M Boys” and given that combo some substance with their wonderful style.
Santana’s Hall of Fame credentials would have received a shot in the arm as would have the legacy of Torii Hunter.
Instead a pennant has eluded all of those stars to this day.
Gardenhire’s legacy would be similar to Mike Scioscia’s, whose 2002 Angels won it all and his subsequent Division Titles helped his legacy rather than hurt it.
All of this could have happened if 2006 went their way.
Instead they are just another team who got swept in the Division Series and lost to history.
Alas a great missed opportunity for the Twins.