Twins in the 2000s: The 2002 Season
Image courtesy of Brock BeauchampWe'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. This installment covers the 2002 season.
Team Record: 94-67
Finish: 1st Place in AL Central
All-Stars: Torii Hunter (OF), Eddie Guardado (RP), A.J. Pierzynski ©
Awards: Torii Hunter (Gold Glove, CF)
Playoffs: Lost to ANA 4-1 in ALCS
The big story was contraction, an attempt by MLB and the Pohlad family to eliminate the Twins franchise, or at least create leverage versus local governments and the players union in various negotiations. In November of 2001, MLB announced that the owners had voted 28 to 2 to contract – essentially purchase and shutter – two of their 30 teams. The teams were not specified, but Twins and Expos were expected to be the contraction victims.
It may have all been a bluff. The Twins had been trying for several years to get state funding for a new stadium, claiming they would not remain viable if they had to continue to play in the Metrodome. Fueling the contraction speculation freed them from needing to find a viable city to move to. In addition, MLB was negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) and the potential elimination of 50 jobs provided them some chips in that negotiation.
But if it was a bluff, it was a bluff that had consequences in government, in the courts, in the offseason and in a coach search. A week after the announcement, legislation was introduced by Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone to strip MLB of its antitrust exemption. A few days later, Judge Harry Crump ruled that the Twins should be forced to play out the 2002 season in the Metrodome, as it was the last year of the their 30-year lease. The ruling was challenged, but was upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court in February, essentially providing a stay of execution contraction for one last year.
Meanwhile the Twins followed a promising season with an offseason in which their management’s hands were essentially tied. Only the most desperate free agents wanted to consider a team which might be eliminated a year later. Ditto for coaches, which was a significant issue considering longtime fixture Tom Kelly retired shortly after the 2001 season. Not surprisingly, the three main candidates to replace him were all internal – Ron Gardenhire, Paul Molitor and Scott Ullger. After waiting months to make sure the Twins would actually be playing, Terry Ryan announced in January that Gardenhire would skipper the 2002 season. (And maybe only the 2002 season.)
Somehow, with every possible reason to be distracted, a youth movement that had never fired on all cylinders suddenly broke through. But that breakthrough was not keyed by a few select superstars. The Twins were a team of contributors, with a different hero every game. No player had 30 home runs, but six reached double-digits. No player had 100 RBIs, but nine had at least 45. Only one full-time pitcher had an ERA under 4 – but seven had at least eight wins.
The Twins had seen a similar breakthrough the year before, but it had been doomed by a bullpen that melted down over the second half of the season. LaTroy Hawkins’ stint in the closer role had been especially painful in the midst of a division race. Hawkins blew five saves and lost one additional game after August 1st. Coincidentally, the Twins finished behind the Indians by six games. An offseason spent in contraction-induced handcuffs meant no obvious improvements could be expected in 2002.
Yet somehow the bullpen became the cornerstone of the team. Advanced metrics don’t support my contention that Eddie Guardado was the team’s MVP, but for Twins fans that lived through the darkness of 2001, “Everyday” was a sunrise. He had four saves in the first week helping the team to a 5-1 start. He allowed Hawkins to be dominant in a setup role. He posted a career-high, league-leading, and franchise record 45 saves with a 2.93 ERA while living up to his nickname appearing in 68 games. He was named Twins pitcher of the year. He even received AL MVP votes.
The Twins' solid start got the state (and baseball fans rooting for the “Contraction Kids”) excited but the division race ended up being a little anticlimactic. Cleveland’s dynasty faded with a whimper; they finished in third place in the division, fourteen games under .500. The fashionable new pick, the White Sox, finished 13 1/2 games behind the 94-win Twins, who were the only team in the AL Central with a winning record. No team got within 10 games of the Twins after mid-July, right after a two-game sweep of Cleveland.
Which meant that the postseason was long-anticipated ... and started out disastrously. The Twins looked exactly like a team that hadn’t played in the playoffs for a decade, committing three errors in the first two innings of the ALDS – and that doesn’t include the infield pop fly that fell in between four infielders. But the Twins rebounded to win that game, and outlasted the A’s in the five-game set, advancing to face the Angels in the ALCS.
Unfortunately, the Metrodome’s magic failed them. The Twins won the first game at home, but Rick Reed couldn’t hold serve in Game 2. That sent the series to Anaheim for three games – and it never came back to the Metrodome. Minnesota's workmanlike bullpen finally wore down, while the Angels – bolstered by a recently promoted 20-year-old fireballer nicknamed K-Rod – consistently held the Twins rally bats in check.
Oh, well, Coughlin’s Law of Ends and all that. Twins fans weren’t going to let Adam Kennedy and some stupid rally monkey ruin that remarkable season. The franchise was saved from death’s cold dark hand. The team made its deepest playoff run in the last 28 years. And the decade got better and better, with six more postseason appearances in the next eight years.
While 1987 and 1991 have their flags at the top of Target Field, we should probably figure out a better way that future generations can commemorate the 2002 season, the most pivotal season in Minnesota Twins history.
Team MVP: Eddie Guardado (RP)
Other Contenders: Torii Hunter (CF), Jacque Jones (LF), Rick Reed (SP), J.C. Romero (RP)
The team took turns rotating through heroes, so there are no shortage of worthy candidates. But Guardado was the one piece that had to work, and he produced a career season, and he lived up to his “Everyday Eddie” nickname. But a sentence or two on several other players is necessary.
Hunter won a Gold Glove in center field, batted cleanup, had the highest OPS on the team, was an All-Star and finished fifth in AL MVP voting. He became a superstar this season. He was voted the MVP by the local BBWAA writers, and I have no problem if you want him over Eddie.
Jones led off, hit .300 and had 27 home runs. He led all hitters in both bWAR and WPA, and played fantastic defense in left. (Third baseman Corey Koskie, by the way, finished second in both categories, led the team in fWAR, and was robbed of a Gold Glove, so he may belong in this spot too.)
And who led the pitching staff in both bWAR and WPA? You can win some (super geeky) bar bets knowing that J.C. Romero led the staff in both. He threw 81 high-leverage innings and posted a 1.89 ERA. He’s easily the most underrated player from the 2002 squad.
Finally, Reed led the starters in innings (188) and was the only full-season starter with an ERA under four (3.78). The only other option would be Johan Santana, whose ERA was 3.24 as a starter, but wasn’t promoted to the team until late May and was only a starter through August, after which he was sent to the bullpen.
3 Most Pivotal Games
April 1st: Won @ Kansas City Royals, 8-6
Remember, there was no guarantee a few months earlier that the Royals would have an opponent in this game. Jones announced that the 2002 Twins weren’t going to sleepwalk through the season with a lead-off home run. Brad Radke relinquished an early lead, but Jones’ second home run of the game gave the Twins back the lead in the seventh inning. Finally, Guardado had his first save chance and converted it in Guardado-like fashion: he got two outs, walked two guys while refusing to give in to them, and got the third out on a short fly ball to Hunter.
April 19th: Won vs. Cleveland Indians, 12-3
The Twins eventually cruised to the AL Central title, but the first couple of weeks looked sadly familiar. Cleveland began the season 11-1, including a sweep of the Twins at Jacobs Field. The Tribe was then swept by the White Sox, but had CC Sabathia on the mound to start their three-game set versus their preferred perennial punching bag, the Minnesota Twins.
But the punching bag produced a player who punched back: Tom Prince? The Twins scored 10 runs in the fourth and fifth innings (eight were charged to Sabathia) capped by a three-run home run by the backup catcher Prince. Minnesota swept the series, and the Indians lost 11 of their next 13 games. By May 4th, the Indians were 5 1/2 games back of the division-leading Twins. They would never get closer than 3 1/2 games of the AL Central lead the rest of the season.
October 1st: Won vs. Oakland Athletics, 7-5
Can Game 1 of a playoff series be pivotal? In a five-game ALDS playoff series, this is the game that should’ve gone the other way, but somehow didn’t. Radke game up five runs in the first two innings, with only one earned as the infield completely melted down around him. But the veteran Radke held things together for five innings, after which Gardenhire threw three southpaws at the A’s – Santana, Romero and Guardado – who held Oakland scoreless.
Meanwhile, the Twins deep lineup kept picking at Tim Hudson and the A’s pitching staff from all angles. The three infielders who made errors – Cristian Guzmán, A.J. Pierzynski and Koskie – had a home run, triple and three RBIs, respectively. The Twins won a game in which they had every reason to throw in the towel early, a microcosm of their season.
Starting with a Bang
There was an extra feeling of vindication and defiance in the air when Jones opened the season with a lead-off home run in Kansas City on April 1st. With all the contraction drama, it was like waving a middle finger to the world. "We're not going anywhere." And they weren't.
Jones' 11 lead-off home runs in 2002 are good for second in American League history, trailing only Baltimore's Brady Anderson (12) in 1996.
The Blowout of All Blowouts
On June 4th, the Twins set their (still standing) all-time record for biggest margin of victory in a 23-2 laugher against Cleveland. When Minnesota's starting pitcher Reed was lifted after seven innings, he had a 21-run lead. Four different Minnesota players had four hits, including Luis Rivas who scored five runs. He joins Molitor (1996), Tim Tuefel (1983) and Rod Carew (1977) as the only Twins to accomplish the latter feat.
Torii Takes One Away from Bonds
Hunter made his first All-Star Game in 2002, and celebrated the occasion with a highlight for the ages. When Barry Bonds launched a drive to deep right-center in the first, everyone in Miller Park was positive it was headed out. Hunter had other ideas. He sprinted a country mile, gathered himself at the warning track, and leapt with perfect timing to retrieve Bonds' would-be dinger and pull it back.
As Hunter robbed a homer from the reigning NL MVP, the reigning AL MVP Ichiro Suzuki stood one foot away, looking up in awe. Hunter, on his way to the second of nine straight Gold Gloves, had officially arrived as a bona fide MLB star.
A.J. Stuns the A's in ALDS
In a decisive Game 5, the Twins were nursing a 2-1 lead in the ninth, as fans sweated a nerve-racking save opportunity on the way for Guardado against the heart of Oakland's lineup, on the road. Following Dustan Mohr's walk to open the top of the ninth, Pieryznski came through with a game-breaking two-run homer off Billy Koch. The All-Star catcher took a moment to admire his work from the batter's box.
Minnesota would add another run on David Ortiz's RBI double, and the insurance proved crucial: Mark Ellis hit a two-run homer off Guardado in the bottom of the ninth, and the Twins won by a single run to take the series.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
Beyond the pennant race and contraction, Twins fans had another big concern in their miracle year: a work stoppage. MLB and the players had a drop-dead date of August 31st to come to terms on a collective bargaining agreement and with 1994’s work stoppage fresh in fans’ minds, there was plenty of concern that a postseason could again be cancelled.
Fortunately, the two sides also remembered just how much of a disaster that was and made steady progress at the negotiating table over the second half of the season. By August, it was fairly clear that the two sides were going to work something out. Even better, the new agreement dictated that contraction of teams was no longer allowed. Crump’s ruling had only protected the Twins for the 2002 season.
This is the season detailed in the book (and movie) Moneyball. And it was the Twins that ended a remarkable run for the A’s in the ALDS. Seeds of the coming sabermetric revolution were planted locally, too. Two influential baseball blogs that analyzed the Twins with an analytical slant started up in 2002, independent of each other: John Bonnes’ TwinsGeek.com and Aaron Gleeman’s AaronGleeman.com.
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