Tuesday June 13, 2006
One of the great things about a 162-game schedule in major league baseball is that their are so many opportunities for a team to turn its fortunes around. A dramatic game in June may simply be “just another game”, or it may be something more. It could turn out to be “the game” where a losing team becomes a contender. It is possible that one such June game happened a year ago today.
Not only did the Minnesota Twins have a losing record at 28-34; their were three teams ahead of them in the AL Central. A full 12 games separated them from the first-place Tigers.
The Twins problems were many at the time. The offense wasn’t producing, the starting pitchers were struggling, and the defense that was so often a strength of the team was among the league’s worst.
It seemed that 2006 was as good as lost when the Boston Red Sox came to the Metrodome for a three-game series in mid-June. The Red Sox had a lead in the AL East and were looking to put some space between them and the New York Yankees. The lineups (from baseball-reference.com):
Boston Red Sox Minnesota Twins 1. C Crisp CF 1. L Castillo 2B 2. M Loretta 2B 2. L Ford LF 3. D Ortiz DH 3. J Mauer C 4. M Ramirez LF 4. M Cuddyer RF 5. J Varitek C 5. J Morneau 1B 6. M Lowell 3B 6. T Hunter CF 7. K Youkilis 1B 7. J Kubel DH 8. T Nixon RF 8. L Rodriguez 3B 9. A Gonzalez SS 9. J Castro SS C Schilling P J Santana P
Johan Santana was just getting over his traditional rough start, and headed into the game with a 6-4 record with a 3.16 ERA. The start to the game went as well as possible for a pitcher, with Santana retiring the first three Red Sox via strikeout. In fact, Santana retired the first seven Sox he faced, six by strikeouts. Through six innings, Santana had allowed just two hits while striking out 12 against one of the most feared lineups in baseball.
Curt Schilling was nearly as good. He allowed just two Twins hits through six innings, and the game remained scoreless into the seventh.
With two outs in the top of the seventh, Jason Varitek lined a Santana pitch over the wall in left-center field to finally break the pitching dominance. In the identical scenario in the bottom of the frame, Michael Cuddyer hit his home run to dead center off of Schilling to even the score at one.
The relative offensive explosion of the seventh inning was quickly quieted by the starters, who each pitched scoreless halves of the eighth to end their respective nights with the following lines:
IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA BF Pit-Str GB-FB GmSc IR-IS C Schilling 8 6 1 1 1 5 1 3.59 27 91-61 9-5 70 - Minnesota Twins IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA BF Pit-Str GB-FB GmSc IR-IS J Santana 8 5 1 1 0 13 1 2.99 28 102-75 5-4 81 -
The teams’ respective bullpens continued the pitching duel by throwing scoreless 9th, 10th, and 11th innings. There wasn’t another score until the Red Sox scratched together a run in the top of the 12th; a ground out with the bases loaded off of Jesse Crain.
Julian Tavarez was called on to finish out the 12th inning and the game for the Red Sox. After striking out Joe Mauer looking to start the inning, Tavarez hit Cuddyer with a pitched ball to put the tying run on with one out. The next batter, Justin Morneau, launched a ground-rule double to right-center. The Sox caught a break in that Cuddyer would have scored easily had the ball stayed in play, but, as it stood, the Twins had the winning run at second with one out. After Torii Hunter was given a free base, Jason Kubel stepped into the box.
After missing all of 2005 due to a knee injury, Kubel hadn’t quite seemed to have returned to the form that made him one of the top prospects in the Twins organization. He came into the game with a .279/.306/.397 line, and had two home runs in 72 plate appearances. On the seventh pitch he saw from Tavarez, Kubel lifted a drive that settled just over the baggie in right field.
The grand slam had won the game, but it is what happened over the next few weeks that changed the Twins’ fortunes. The team won its next six games, including the final two games of the Red Sox series, and rattled off an impressive 17 out of 18 win streak. From June 13 on, the Twins went 68-32, and won the Central Division on the last day of the season.