From 2002-2004, the Minnesota Twins went back-to-back-to-back as AL Central champions. I’ll die on the hill proclaiming the ‘04 squad the best of that bunch.
Offensively, the Soul Patrol outfield (Stewart-Hunter-Jones) was still intact, and even when Stewart was limited to just 430 PA, Lewwwwwwww Ford stepped in and posted a 114 OPS+. The International Infield of Koskie-Guzman-Rivas-Mientkiewicz provided solid production and actually improved when Dougie Baseball was shipped to Boston at the trade deadline, freeing up a full-time spot for young slugger Justin Morneau. The only lineup disappointment? Hometown kid—and top prospect—Joe Mauer blowing out his knee in the second game of the season, leading to Henry Blanco & Pat Borders as the main catchers (neither posting an OPS north of .700).
On the mound, Johan Santana (20-6, 2.61 ERA, 182 ERA+) had put together his first Cy Young season, and Brad Radke (136 ERA+) was a solid #2. Even Carlos Silva topped 200 IP and recorded 14 victories despite giving up 255 hits. In the pen, Joe Nathan took over closer duty and was absolutely unstoppable (44 saves, 1.62 ERA, 294 ERA+), while setup men from both port and starboard—J.C. Romero & Juan Rincon—were a lethal combination. Joe Roa (more on him later) also provided unique length.
The ‘04 Twins finished 92-70 and drew the New York Yankees—of course—in the ALDS, beginning at Yankee Stadium due to their 101-61 record.
Game 1 couldn't have gone any better: Santana went seven strong and the Rincon/Nathan combination finished the shutout of the Bronx Bombers. The Twins’ bats scraped a few runs off Mike Mussina to take the 1-0 series lead.
Game 2 was, let’s just say, much more wild and wooly. Neither starter—Radke or Jon Lieber—were all that sharp, and the Twins found themselves behind 5-3 heading into the top of the eighth. But then, the unthinkable happened: facing postseason cyborg Mariano Rivera, the Twins rallied to tie the game. It stayed knotted until the top of the 12th, when Torii Hunter unloaded on a Tanyon Sturtze offering to give Minnesota a 6-5 lead.
Three outs away from being up 2-0, the Twins sent Nathan to the mound for a third inning of work. It did not go well. Alex Rodriguez (ugh) doubled to tie the game, and the Yanks eventually pulled it out on a Hideki Matsui sacrifice fly.
Despite the series heading to the Metrodome for Games 3 & 4, that extra-inning loss seemed to suck the momentum away from the Twins. New York won a laugher in Game 3 (Silva was a dud; Kevin Brown was not), and even though the Twins held a 5-2 lead late in Game 4, Ruben Sierra took care of that with one swing of the bat. New York took the series 3-1.
The rest of that postseason—Boston coming back from 0-3 to beat the Yankees and then sweep the Cardinals—was one of the most memorable of all-time. From the dramatics of Dave Roberts & David Ortiz to the breaking of the Curse of the Bambino, it was about as good as playoff baseball gets. But in the back of my mind, I always wonder how far the Twins could have gotten if they had just been able to close out Game 2.
Perhaps a different sort of curse was at play: Despite being a year-long contributor to the bullpen, reliever Joe Roa was left off the postseason roster in favor of young, fireballing late-season call-ups like Jesse Crain & Grant Balfour. It was almost certainly the right move: Roa’s raw numbers (70 IP, 84 H, 106 ERA+) weren’t all that impressive. But at the time, it was a big deal (seen as shafting a veteran in favor of Johnny-come-lately’s) and I seem to remember Roa himself being very vocal about his displeasure.
Whether one blames curses, bullpen overwork, or New York mystique & aura, the ‘04 Twins are the squad I always remember as “the one that got away”.