Twins in the 2000s: The 2001 Season
We're running a 20-part series in which we look back at each Minnesota Twins season of the 2000s. A rotation of different writers will highlight key moments, unearth forgotten details, and share nostalgic tales from the past two decades leading up to the present. Today's installment covers the 2001 season.
Team Record: 85-77
Finish: 2nd Place in AL Central
All Star(s): Cristian Guzmán (SS), Joe Mays (SP), Eric Milton (SP)
Awards: Torii Hunter (Gold Glove, CF), Doug Mientkiewicz (Gold Glove, 1B)
As 2001 arrived, the Minnesota Twins were a full decade removed from their last playoff appearance. Tom Kelly had trudged through the muck of a prolonged rebuild, but thankfully, the 2000 season – in spite of a last-place finish – offered more hope than ever that a culture of losing was ready to snap. In 2001, it did.
As the long-simmering talent core finally coalesced, Minnesota jumped out to a shocking 14-3 start. Refusing to relent, the Twins kept it rolling throughout the first half, riding a 13-2 stretch into the All-Star break, by which point they'd built a five-game lead over favored Cleveland in the AL Central.
Not since 1994 (Kirby Puckett and Chuck Knoblauch) had the Twins sent more than one representative to the Midsummer Classic. In 2001 they sent three: Cristian Guzmán, Eric Milton, Joe Mays. A little more on these critical cogs:
- After setting a franchise record with 20 triples in 2000, Guzmán came out of the gates with four three-baggers in his first five games, on his way to another league-leading total of 14. He also swiped 25 more bases, but this time the shortstop's offensive impact went beyond the speed categories: he slashed .302/.337/.477 with 10 home runs.
- Milton, acquired alongside Guzmán in the 1996 Knoblauch trade, remained a consistently above-average workhorse, logging career highs in innings (220 2/3), wins (15), and ERA (4.32) in what would be the last outstanding campaign of his career.
- Mays was an absolute force, ranking third among American League starters in ERA (3.16) and leading the league in ERA+ (143) while racking up 233 2/3 innings over his 34 starts, which included four complete games and two shutouts. In the context of a very offense-friendly league, the righty's stellar results – while averaging 4.7 K/9 – were nothing short of astonishing. He'd never come close to replicating them.
After streaking into the All-Star break, Minnesota slumped badly coming out of it, losing 10 of 13 to watch their five-game lead in the standings evaporate. In late July, they found themselves in a dogfight with Cleveland and needing reinforcements. Terry Ryan, navigating a pennant race for the first time as general manager, faced high stakes at the trade deadline.
On July 28th, Ryan dealt southpaw starter Mark Redman to Detroit for closer Todd Jones, who moved into a setup role ahead of LaTroy Hawkins. But Minnesota's biggest splash came two days later, when Ryan sent Lawton to the Mets in exchange for 36-year-old starter Rick Reed. It was, in the context of the time, a major blockbuster for the Twins, but the deal failed to pay dividends. Reed would post a 5.19 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch.
Ryan was wise to seek relief help, but it turns out he needed a closer, not a setup man. He can hardly be blamed for not realizing as much at the time. On the date Ryan traded for Jones, Hawkins was 26-for-30 on save chances with a 3.05 ERA and zero homers allowed (though the 28-to-25 K/BB ratio was a bad omen). One day after Jones was acquired, Hawkins gave up four earned runs without recording an out. This foreshadowed a month of August for the rotten record books:
10 appearances, 7 innings pitched, 16 hits, 8 walks, 12 earned runs (15.43 ERA).
From the trade deadline to the end of the season, Hawkins blew five saves (converting only two) and was tagged with three losses as opponents slashed .407/.507/.644 against him. He was far from the only culprit in a free-fall that saw Minnesota go from five games up at the break to six games out when the season ended, but Hawk's meltdown was certainly emblematic.
He wasn't ready yet. Neither were these Twins. But in both cases, the best was yet to come.
It wouldn't come under Kelly, who announced his retirement days after the tumultuous campaign reached an end, citing burnout. He was still only 51, but it came as no surprise to see TK bow out on his own terms after 15 years, especially with a contraction threat looming over the franchise. Third base coach Ron Gardenhire was selected over bench coach Paul Molitor as Kelly's successor, and would oversee the 2002 Twins season ... if it happened.
MLB owners voted in November to eliminate two teams, with Minnesota square in the crosshairs.
Team MVP: Corey Koskie (3B)
Other Contenders: Joe Mays (SP), Cristian Guzmán (SS), Eric Milton (SP), Torii Hunter (CF)
There is a valid case to be made here for Mays, who was an absolute stalwart in the rotation. But instead I opt for Koskie, who filled the stat sheet offensively as cleanup hitter – .850 OPS, 26 homers, 37 doubles, 100 runs scored, 103 RBIs, 27 steals on 33 tries – while emerging as one of the league's best fielders at third base. Mays and his contact-heavy approach benefited greatly from an ultra-sharp defense keyed in part by Koskie (not to mention the Gold Glovers Mientkiewicz across the diamond and Hunter in center).
FanGraphs pegs Koskie's 2001 season with a 5.8 fWAR that was easily best on the team. In fact, it was the highest mark posted by any Twin between Knoblauch's last season at second base (1997) and Johan Santana's first full one in the rotation (2004).
Now 28 years old, Koskie found himself as the elder statesman in a young group that was rounding into its own, and he led by example with his roundly stellar performance.
3 Most Pivotal Games
June 26th: Won vs. Chicago White Sox, 7-6
There is no shortage of of impressive victories you could choose to reflect the team's feisty, energetic brilliance during a 55-32 first half, but this one seems as good as any. Down 6-3 entering the ninth in a home series opener against the Sox, Minnesota rallied for three runs to walk off closer Keith Foulke, with Denny Hocking's pinch-hit two-run triple delivering the fatal blow.
This exhilarating win was Minnesota's third straight, and they'd go on to win 11 of their next 13. These kids were starting to believe.
July 29th: Lost @ Seattle Mariners, 10-2
A week ago, this all-time great M's team had torn through the Metrodome and thoroughly dismantled Minnesota in a four-game sweep. Now, the Twins were trying to avoid a season sweep in their series finale at Seattle, with the deadline bearing down and their lead in the division gone.
Instead, they got blown out. Milton gave up six earned runs. Hawkins was torched, detonating his total implosion. Freddy García allowed five hits in a breezy complete-game win. Sadly, it was a preview of things to come in a nightmare stretch run for the Twins.
August 14th: Lost @ Cleveland Indians, 8-7
The Twins took a five-game losing streak into August and proceeded to lose 18 of 29 games in the month, including five of six against Cleveland as the Indians widened their newfound lead. This defeat was probably most painful.
Trailing 4-3 into the ninth, the Twins tied the game on Hunter's RBI groundout, then took a three-run lead on Pierzynski's three-run triple. Hawkins came out and promptly blew a three-run save, and the Twins lost in the bottom of the 11th on Juan González's RBI single off Bob Wells.
Twins Burst into National Spotlight
On April 30th, a new issue of Sports Illustrated hit stands with Lawton adorning the front cover, his swing perfectly displaying "MINNESOTA" across the front of his road jersey, along with the headline "Do You Believe in Miracles?" The perpetual also-ran Twins had rushed to an early division lead behind an exciting young collection of talent, which was gelling exactly as its architect Ryan envisioned. People were taking notice.
On the same date that SI issue came out, as if to affirm its premise, Brad Radke outdueled Andy Pettitte in a 2-1 victory over the Yankees, improving his record to 5-0 and his team's to 18-6.
Mauer Drafted First Overall
Many important things happened on the field during the 2001 season, but the most important moment for the franchise came off of it, on June 5th. Blessed with the first overall pick in the MLB draft coming off a 93-loss season, Ryan and the Twins selected Joe Mauer, the heralded prep catcher out of St. Paul. It was a controversial decision at the time, with stud college righty Mark Prior standing out as the glamorous pick, but TR would eventually be vindicated.
Prior's career was over by 2006 while Mauer went on to become one of the greatest Twins ever.
Radke Goes the Distance
Although Milton and Mays emerged as All-Stars, Radke remained the rotation's steady rock, logging 226 innings with a 115 ERA+ and career highs in both complete games (6) and shutouts (2). The most impressive of those came on June 12th, at home against an Astros lineup that included Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Moises Alou.
Completing nine innings on 90 pitches, Radke allowed four hits (three singles and a double) and issued zero walks. He went on to lead the American League in BB/9 rate (1.0) and K/BB ratio (5.27)
Lineup Shows Explosive Potential
During their decade-long playoff drought, the Twins hadn't really kept pace with the game's offensive uptick. In 2000 they ranked last in the majors with 116 home runs – nearly 20% fewer than the second-to-last team. But 2001 brought real signs of growth, and the team's win over the Brewers on July 12th might exemplify it best.
Riding high with 13 wins in their past 15 games, the Twins delivered an onslaught against Milwaukee pitching. They scored 13 runs on seven homers, including two apiece from Jones, Hunter and Koskie. Koskie also doubled twice in a four-hit effort, and even rookie starting pitcher Kyle Lohse – making his fifth MLB start – got in on the action, finishing 2-for-4 with a double in the interleague match.
Chad Allen's Gutsy Showing
I'm not sure it qualifies as a "highlight" but it certainly made a lasting impression: On August 14th, right fielder Chad Allen tore his ACL while trying to chase down a Kenny Lofton drive in extra innings. There's no video of it online, from what I can tell, but I'll never forget the way Allen hobbled after the ball in extreme pain, determined to throw it back in before crumpling to the ground and getting stretchered off. Pure grit.
Allen didn't play again for the Twins, but he did return to the organization 12 years later as a minor-league hitting instructor.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
While the Twins made one of their most successful high draft picks ever during the summer of 2001, we also got a chance to see one of their biggest disasters make a fleeting appearance. Adam Johnson, whom the team selected second overall one year earlier (five picks ahead of one Rocco Baldelli), made his MLB debut on July 16th at age 21, and went on to post an 8.28 ERA in 25 innings. This didn't seem all that worrisome, given he'd scarcely been in pro ball for a year, but Johnson was basically done. He finished his MLB career with a 10.25 ERA in 26 1/3 innings.
When Radke took a line drive off the hand in a game against Kansas City on August 3rd, he suffered a thumb bruise that forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his career. By that point, he was 28 and had already made 221 major-league starts while throwing nearly 1,500 innings. The man was an absolute horse.
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