When baseball fans look back at the 2002 season, they mostly remember it for the Moneyball Oakland A’s. Oakland rattled off a 20-game winning streak and won the AL West with a 103-59 record. Yet despite all of the craziness of their season, Oakland’s postseason didn’t exactly go as expected. In fact, their biggest problems came against the Minnesota Twins –– a team that was almost contracted from MLB less than a year prior.
2001 MLB Contraction Plan
After the 2001 season, a vote took place to eliminate two teams from MLB –– the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins. The league’s owners voted 28-2 in favor of the contraction, with commissioner Bud Selig citing financial reasons for why both teams didn’t have a place in MLB. Both teams were trying to get new ballparks but didn’t have the funding for construction.
The contraction plan fell through though, as the MLBPA opposed it and a court injunction in Minnesota got the Twins to continue with their lease with the Metrodome. The Twins eventually came to an agreement for a new stadium, while the Expos were turned into a collective by MLB and eventually moved to Washington D.C.
Twins Make the Most of Second Chance
With new life, the Twins began the 2002 season with an 8-6 win over the Kansas City Royals. Minnesota played well in April, going 16-11, and followed that up with a respectable 15-13 May. By the end of June, the Twins had built a six-game lead in a weak AL Central, and that lead increased to 7.5 games by the All-Star Game.
Following the Midsummer Classic, the Twins came out firing, winning 15 of their next 19 games to finish the month of July. By the end of the month, Minnesota had a 14-game cushion over the second-place White Sox and had a strong 65-43 record.
Even after an up-and-down August that included the team’s longest losing streak of the year, the Twins remained unopposed by the AL Central. That brief skid included a three-game sweep at the hand of the streaking A’s, who were showing no signs of slowing down. All great streaks have to end though, and the Twins ended Oakland’s historic winning streak by handing them a 6-0 defeat on September 6 in the Metrodome.
On September 15, the Twins clinched their first division title since 1991 with a 5-0 victory over the Indians. Just two years removed from having the worst record in the AL, Minnesota finished the season with a 94-67 record, 13.5 games ahead of the White Sox, and seeded third heading into the playoffs. Manager Ron Gardenhire finished third in Manager of the Year voting in his first season as an MLB skipper.
All but two of Minnesota’s everyday players registered an OPS+ of at least 100. Surprisingly, their 4.74 runs per game only ranked ninth in the AL. They had two of their starters make the All-Star Game –– A.J. Pierzynski and Torii Hunter. While Pierzynski only hit six homers, he chipped in a solid .300/.334/.439 (104 OPS+) batting line with 31 doubles. Hunter was the team’s best hitter, batting .289/.334/.524 (124 OPS+) with 29 homers, 37 doubles, 23 steals, 94 RBIs, and 3.5 rWAR. Hunter also won a Gold Glove and finished sixth in MVP voting.
Hunter was joined in the outfield by Jacque Jones and 26-year-old rookie Dustan Mohr. Jones had a career year with the bat, hitting .300/.341/.511 (123 OPS+) with 27 homers, 37 doubles, 85 RBIs, and 5.5 rWAR. Mohr made the most of his opportunities, batting .269/.325/.433 (100 OPS+) with 12 homers, 23 doubles, 45 RBIs, and 2.1 rWAR, while finishing eighth in Rookie of the Year voting. Bobby Kielty also received some playing time, hitting a strong .291/.405/.484 (136 OPS+) with 12 homers, 45 RBIs, and 2.7 rWAR in 348 plate appearances. Kielty also finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
On the infield, Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz both turned in solid seasons, OPSing .815 and .756, respectively. The only weak links in the team were middle infielders Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman, who both registered below-average seasons.
Rounding out the offense was the team’s designated hitter, David Ortiz. In his age-26 season, Ortiz showed promise, hitting .272/.339/.500 (120 OPS+) with 20 homers, 32 doubles, and 75 RBIs. Unfortunately, this effort didn’t save Ortiz from getting released in the following off-season.
The Twins’ starting rotation consisted of Rick Reed, Kyle Lohse, Eric Milton, Brad Radke, and Joe Mays. Reed turned in a nice campaign in his age-37 season, registering a 3.78 ERA/4.40 FIP and a 1.160 WHIP in 188.0 innings. The rest of the rotation was unspectacular, with Lohse’s 4.23 ERA being the only other above-average mark.
While the rotation wasn’t very strong, the Minnesota bullpen was fantastic. They had five strong arms –– Michael Jackson, J.C. Romero, Tony Fiore, LaTroy Hawkins, and closer Eddie Guardado. Johan Santana, who was picked up in the Rule 5 Draft, also had a strong year, putting up a 2.99 ERA/2.66 FIP with 137 strikeouts in 108.1 innings (11.6 K/9) while splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. Guardado was an All-Star and received MVP votes, pitching to a 2.93 ERA/3.46 FIP and a 1.049 WHIP with 70 strikeouts and an AL-best 45 saves in 67.2 innings (9.3 K/9). Romero led the team with 81 appearances and pitched to a 1.89 ERA/3.05 FIP with 76 strikeouts in 81 innings (8.4 K/9).
In the ALDS, the Twins matched up against the A’s, who were a popular pick to win the World Series coming off their wild summer surge. At the plate, they were led by MVP winner Miguel Tejada and they were led on the mound by Cy Young winner Barry Zito. In the bullpen, they were anchored by fireballer Billy Koch, who won the AL Rolaids Relief Man Award.
After falling behind 5-1 in game 1, the Twins rallied back to steal the game 7-5 thanks to homers from Koskie and Mientkiewicz and clutch RBIs from Jones and Pierzynski. In games 2 and 3 though, Oakland punished everything the Twins had to offer, winning 9-1 and 6-3. Minnesota’s bats couldn’t muster much and left a combined 16 men on base in those two games. In game 4 however, Minnesota capitalized on some Oakland miscues by putting up a seven-run fourth inning to key an 11-2 victory, sending the series back to Oakland for a decisive game 5.
In game 5, the Twins jumped ahead early with RBI singles from Denny Hocking and Matt LeCroy, while the A’s could only manage a solo home run from Ray Durham against Radke. In the top of the ninth, Pierzynski delivered a huge blow, knocking a two-run homer off of Koch. After Ortiz added an RBI double, the Twins handed the ball to Guardado to shut the door.
The A’s wouldn’t go quietly in the bottom half though. After Eric Chavez singled and Jermaine Dye doubled, Guardado served up a three-run homer to Mark Ellis, cutting the Minnesota lead to 5-4. With two outs, Randy Velarde singled, bringing Durham to the plate as the winning run. Guardado settled down though, getting Durham to pop out to Hocking, ending Oakland’s outstanding season.
In the ALCS, the Twins were defeated in five games by the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels, and Minnesota hasn’t won a postseason series since.
Following the 2002 season, the Twins went on to win the AL Central five times in the next eight seasons. While baseball fans love to laugh at the Twins for their 18 consecutive postseason losses, we can’t forget how miraculous of a season their 2002 team had. Less than a year earlier, they weren’t even going to be in the league, yet they were the only team that seemed to be able to stop the Moneyball A’s. While the A’s have a movie about them, the Twins had. a season that was also worthy of a movie.
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