The Twins have been in the cat-bird seat most of the way, but of late the Tribe has made a hard charge back to the top.
Coming into the season, Cleveland has dominated the division for quite a few years, while the “Twinkies” have not been relevant for nearly a decade.
This isn’t a description of the 2019 season. In 2001, the Twins & Indians engaged in a divisional battle that looked remarkably similar to this year thus far. Really, the only difference was that the ’01 Twins were starting pitching-rich (Radke, Mays, Milton) while the Indians featured a proto-Bomba Squad of Jim Thome (49 HR), Roberto Alomar (20), Juan Gonzalez (35), Russell Branyon (20), Ellis Burks (28), and even former Twins slugger Marty Cordova (20).
Unfortunately, that 2001 season did not end well in Twins Territory...
Over the final 45 games, the Twins went from a dead heat with Cleveland at 64-51 (on August 11), to 6.0 GB (85-77) on the season’s final day. An August swoon that saw them drop 14 of 16 games in one stretch and a 3-9 head-to-head record against the Indians in the final two months were the primary culprits. As an adolescent desperate for a winning Twins ballclub, it was heartbreaking to see the playoffs tantalizingly within reach only to have them slip away once sophomore year of high school commenced.
Digging a little deeper, the bullpen seemed to be a—perhaps the—major factor in the Twins falling out of the race.
(gulps in 2019)
From memory, LaTroy Hawkins struggled so mightily down the stretch as a closer that the next season he was not retained in that role (hence the dawn of Everyday Eddie Guardado). Looking at the relievers that year, only Jack Cressend pitched over 20 innings with an ERA under 4.00. Guys like Hector Carrasco, Bob Wells, Travis Miller, and the aforementioned Hawkins/Guardado were all below-average—some significantly so—firemen.
This year’s Twins squad is structured a bit like that ’01 team: the batting order features surprising pop from a core of young players who came up through the system together and finally seem to be gelling, the starting pitching is (usually) good enough to keep games within reach, and the bullpen is either a full-on dumpster fire or seemingly always on the verge of one. The best way to avoid repeating 2001’s fate, if history is any indication: avoid a long losing streak (something the ’19 squad has been pretty good at) and make the most of the six remaining matchups with Cleveland.
The good news regarding the ‘01 Twins? Despite coming up short in that specific campaign, the club would go on to dominate the AL Central for basically the rest of the decade. I’m hoping the current iteration can continue on that track, but also perhaps turn the formula on its head this year and get some revenge for my 16-year old broken heart.
By the way, the first commenter to name the Twin with the highest WAR in ’01 gets a virtual pat on the back! No Baseball-Reference cheating either, just give your off-the-cuff guesses.