Twins Serious About Being a Contender
By John Gilbert
Mentioning the Minnesota Twins and the words “pennant contender” have not been connected in the same sentence for several years now. But maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing an uprising down at Target Field, right here in the middle of June, 2014. Don’t be surprised if the Twins make a spirited bid in the middle third of this long baseball season to become a contender in the American League’s Central Division, and you heard it here first.
If I’m right, Minnesota could be on the verge of taking a giant step upward in pro sports. I’m convinced the Minnesota Wild will be a strong factor all seasonand be a contender in the NHL next season. I also think the Vikings will thrust themselves up into contention in the NFL, with a new coach and a new “Quarterback of the Future,” this fall. Only the Timberwolves seem in danger of continuing to dribble in the wilderness, particularly if, indeed, Kevin Love demands to go elsewhere despite flipping over to Flip Saunders as coach.
The idea of the Twins, though, may seem the most outrageous, because they are currently stuck in last place in the AL Central. But it hit me over the weekend that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it showed a glimmer just as the Twins sank to last place in the Central by being thrashed by Houston. Houston! Having never subscribed to the bandwagon approach, I suggested during last year’s woeful season that baseball fans should just start enjoying each Twins game for its entertainment value and forget about putting each game into the context of what a bad overall season it was. Good way to stay sane, in my opinion.
This year, I was a cynic when the Twins spent a bunch of money on some starting pitchers, mainly because it seemed like a lot of money for three or four guys who might not do the job. Besides, Josh Willingham. Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett had barely made contact throughout training camp exhibition play, which made me wonder just how far Joe Mauer could take this club. When the season started, the starting pitchers had bonuses for hitting the fattest part of opposing bats, because they did it with such regularity. Strangely, the hitting was good. Mauer only got into one hot streak, and it ended when he went out for a week with back problems. But Brian Dozier, Willingham, and the crop of no-names with names like Arcia, Hicks and Santana hit the ball very well — only to be undone by that shaky starting pitching.
Finally, in mid-May, the starters started to look OK, then pretty good, and then very impressive. Even Ricky Nolasco, who is the second-highest-paid player on the roster behind Mauer, seems on the verge of a “quality start” pretty soon. With Dozier diving around making spectacular plays at second base every game, in the field, the club was entertaining. They’d win a few, reaching the .500 mark and second place in the division, then lose half a dozen, in a disturbing pattern of inconsistency.
But I saw hope. And two factors came on — with the improvement of the starting pitchers being one, and the certainty, in my mind, that Joe Mauer will get his act together and get on a tear. He has gotten a weird tendency to strike out under control, and he’s hitting the ball sharply. Any day now, he will start on one of those rampages where every opposing pitch becomes either a ball or a line drive. When that happens, I figured, the Twins could stalk their way upward through the Central Division field, which resembles the Detroit Tigers and four teams reluctant to be contenders. Then last week, Twins general manager Terry Ryan shocked Twins fans by augmenting that Team No-Name batting order with the signing of Kendrys Morales.
Not exactly a household name, true, but Morales hit 45 home runs for the Seattle Mariners in the last two seasons. He may not get into the lineup right away, but his impact already has been evident. The Twins players seem to have more bounce in their step, as if suddenly realizing that the front office is serious about becoming a contender. Yes, Morales has raised the spirit inside the Twins clubhouse and in the stands, and at home watching on cable or listening to the radio.
It is a stretch, to be sure, to compare it to the enormous impact the Vikings made when they signed Brett Favre a few years ago, or when the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in a move that started that franchise moving upward to a point where its potential is just now becoming evident. The mental part of the game is amazing. The Vikings roared into the playoffs behind Favre, and the surge of optimism among Wild players proved Parise and Suter had more impact in optimism. There could be a similar surge within the Twins at the Morales signing, and if so, Terry Ryan made another big move to kick-start the attitude change.
If I’m wrong, we can go back to watching Hughes pitch, Dozier dive for grounders, Willingham and Arcia socking balls out of Target Field, and enjoying the entertainment value. But if I’m right, the Twins will go directly to second place, and by then, the mighty Detroit Tigers had better be on a roll or else that Twins image in their rear-view mirror will keep getting larger and larger.
GOOFY HUNCHES OR CRAFTY CALCULATIONS?
Goofy hunches can hit right in the middle of doing something else. But those goofy hunches sometimes connect in a big way, too. For example, last August, I determined that the Seattle Seahawks would win the Super Bowl. I liked their team, and calculated that they had it all — a contemporary gunslinger at quarterback in Russell Wilson, a strong running game, and an effectiveliy nasty defense. It worked out.
Similarly, while the Twin Cities media was deciding that their chore of covering playoff hockey would be short, because Colorado was so explosively fast, I picked the Minnesota Wild to beat the Avalanche. I stuck with that pick even after the Wild lost the first two games out in Denver, because when it all broke down, I thought the Wild’s balance and unsung workers, plus an outstanding and almost charismatic defensive attitude instilled by coach Mike Yeo, would overcome the unheard of musical-chair goaltending situation. Again, it worked out. And it is the reason for my optimism for the Wild next season.
A few weeks ago, while watching the Wild tangle with the Chicago Blackhawks, I also watched some telecasts of the Anaheim-Los Angeles series. I sent a text message to my younger son, Jeff, out in Bellingham, Wash., and said: “I think the LA Kings are the best team in the playoffs right now.” I decided right then that the Los Angeles Kings were going to win the Stanley Cup. The dynamic duo of Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, plus some other aggressively skilled forwards, a fast and mobile defense, and they goaltender Jonathan Quick, who is capable of flat stonewalling any opponent in any selected game, made the pick rational to me. The Kings have a young defenseman named Drew Doughty who might be the best defenseman in the NHL. And he’s only 24.
But my main reason for picking the Kings is that they have this indomitable spirit that allows them to rise up even after falling behind — in a game or in a series — and simply take over games. And here they are, battling the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup. When you’re in the sports-writing business, you’d like to think your guesses are educated, but in many cases, my guesses are pretty whimsical, taking a shot on teams that have an almost mystical ability to will themselves to win. They have singlehandedly reversed NHL tradition. When the Kings beat the Blackhawks in Game 7 in Chicago, they fell behind 2-0 before roaring back and getting the lead, and ultimately the victory. When the Kings opened the final against the New York Rangers, the Rangers were 14-0 in games when they led after two periods. Seems logical. But in Game 1 in Los Angeles, the Rangers stormed to an early 2-0 lead. It prompted the tv analysts to proclaim that the Rangers were clearly the fresher of the two teams going into the third period, and both favored the Rangers to win; the Kings kicked it into gear, came back to tie 2-2, and won 3-2 in overtime. In Game 2, the Rangers stormed to another 2-0 head-start, and I pulled out the ol’ cell phone and texted Jeff: “Looks like the Kings have ’em right where they want ’em.” I was being sarcastic, but incredibly, about two minutes later, the Kings scored. Again Milbury and Jones proclaimed the Rangers the stronger team through two periods and virtually certain to even the series. Oops! They must have piped that NBC-Sports telecast into the Kings dressing room, because the Kings not only overcame a 2-0 deficit but also a 4-2 deficit, then outshot the “fresher” Rangers 22-3 in the third period, tied the game, and then won it in double overtime 5-4.
A pivotal goal for the Kings came on a blistering shot from the point, just as LA’s Dwight King skated from behind the net trying to get out front on the left of the cage. Ryan McDonagh, former Cretin-Derham Hall and Wisconsin Badger standout, and an emerging superstar defenseman for the Rangers, tried to squeeze off King to prevent him from getting tip-in position, and, as defensemen are wont to do, he hip-checked King right into goaltender Henrik Lundqvist as the shot came flying in. The puck hit King and went in, and even though McDonagh was still standing over the King-on-Lundqvist pile, the Rangers screamed that the goal should be disallowed for a goaltender interference penalty on King. That goal cut the Ranger lead from 4-2 to 4-3 — yes, the Rangers had two two-goal leads in this one — and was the springboard for another shocking Kings comeback. Amazing.
That sent the series to New York for Monday’s Game 3 and Wednesday’s Game 4. But by then, leading after two periods, even by two goals, was no longer a weapon the Rangers could lean on. In fact, in those 3-2 and 5-4 overtime classics, the LA Kings never once held the lead in regulation play. The only time they led in the first two games was after scoring the overtime game-winners. Not only do they not seem to mind, but the Kings don’t ever lose their poise if they get behind. That’s a tribute to coach Darryl Sutter, and to the players assembled.
In Game 3, there was no need for a Kings comeback. They scored with 0.7 seconds on the clock to end the first period, made it 2-0 in the second, and 3-0 in the third — despite being outshot 32-15. Jonathan Quick stopped everything in his best game of a sensational spring, and the Kings took a 3-0 stranglehold on the series.
True, only four NHL teams in history have ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series, and the only one to do it in the final was Toronto in 1942 against Detroit.
There had been only three teams to have done it in any series, until LA became the fourth by spotting San Jose the first three games and then going on the surge that is carrying them to the Stanley Cup.
BRIDGEWATERING THE GAP
Among things that bore me beyond reason is the NFL draft. I mean, every journalist in the country stirs up football fans to actually sit for hours and watch broadcasts of guys making random picks of random players who might someday help the home team. I had watched a lot of college football last fall, and after a fantastic performance caught my eye at one point, I decided to tune in to watch Louisville play so I could focus in on this guy., Teddy Bridgewater.
The mountain of publicity for Johnny Manziel and other QB prospects had obscured Bridgewater pretty much, but Louisville kept winning, and I was impressed. He threw bullet passes, he had quick feet, he ran the offense impressively, seemed to hit the right notes on audibles, but the one thing that stood out to me was that when the defense had a hard pass covered, Bridgewater had the ability and the touch to lob a perfectly feathered pass over the defenders and into the waiting arms of his receivers. Not many quarterbacks in college have the ability to pass both hard and soft, and know when to do which.
On the eve of the draft, I said forget all those other quarterbacks, the perfect fit for the Vikings would be Teddy Bridgewater. Because I only pay mild attention to the first round of the draft, and I was disappointed that the Vikings hadn’t taken one of the promising available quarterbacks to seal up their biggest problem, I made the comment that no matter what else the Vikings do, people will be very upset that they didn’t take a quarterback.
“But they did take a quarterback,” I was told. Then I learned the Vikings had made a late trade to get into position to take one last player, with the last pick of the first round. They took Teddy Bridgewater. There are critics and others who are quick to say he can’t do it and it was a mistake. And the Vikings are correct to say he will just come in and be No. 3 to start training camp. My response was that then it will only take until the end of the first quarter of the first exhibition game for Vikings fans to start demanding to see Bridgewater.
My thought is that once they hand him the ball, the Vikings will move into the thick of contemporary NFL offenses, and people like Adrian Peterson will be unstoppable. Just a hunch.