Twins in the 2000s: The 2004 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 2004 season.
Team Record: 92-70
Finish: 1st Place in AL Central
All-Star: Joe Nathan (RP)
Awards: Johan Santana (AL Cy Young), Torii Hunter (Gold Glove, CF)
Playoffs: Lost to NYY 3-1 in ALDS
The 2004 season introduced Twins fans to players who would end up having immense impacts on the franchise over the next 15 seasons. Between the amateur player draft, big-league debuts, and increased roles, this was a season to be remembered. Whether viewed as Joe Mauer’s rookie year, or the year that Joe Nathan ignited his dominance as a closer, or the year Justin Morneau took over the reins from fan favorite Doug Mientkiewicz at first, there are a lot of storylines you'll be reminded of as you read through this article. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Johan Santana winning his first of two (should be three) Cy Young Awards and becoming the first Twins pitcher to earn the honor since Frank Viola in 1988.
One of my favorite things to look at when reviewing a season is Baseball Reference's team pages where you can find splits for darn near anything, including one of my favorite graphics shown below:
It’s always good to see a lot more clusters of green than red, especially when the clusters of green are taller. Although the season ended in familiar fashion, it was filled with moments that defined the franchise for many seasons to come.
It didn’t take long for Twins fans to get excited about this year's squad. With the debut of a future franchise cornerstone in Mauer, and a 15-7 month of April, it was clear the Twins were going to be contending for their third consecutive Central division title. Fans were pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Lew Ford. He slashed .419/.471/.710 in 70 plate appearances in the first month, which would be more of a trend than a mirage for the rest of the season.
Then came the month of May. Twins fans learned they would be without their rookie catcher for another month due to a knee injury, and the team struggled to the tune of a 12-16 record. The offense wasn’t producing, and the starting pitching outside of Brad Radke was stumbling. Even Santana wasn't finding his groove, finishing May with a 5.61 ERA and casting some doubt on his spectacular emergence the prior season. Despite all of this, the Twins found themselves just 2 1/2 games outside of first place, with their bullpen stepping up as one of the best in baseball.
Things improved in June. Mauer returned after recovering and rehabbing for nearly two months, and the Twins finished the month with a 14-12 record. Although the offense kept sputtering, the most important development was Santana becoming the force that Twins fans came to love. Minnesota won three of its first ten games in June on walk-offs, and by the end of the month, had gained a game and a half on the White Sox. Regardless, the Twins were three months into their season with an average starting staff, and an outstanding relief corps, but in desperate need of someone to kickstart the offense.
Entering the All-Star break in mid-July, the Twins had gained another game on the White Sox but the offense was still ineffective, so on July 15th they recalled their top first base prospect Morneau. This is also the last day that Twins fans would see an at-bat from Mauer in 2004, as complications from his knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. Thus the "M&M" legacy began.
Santana grew even more dominant in July, and Twins fans were starting to realize they had one of the best closers in the league as Nathan had converted 29 saves in 30 chances and struck out 55 batters in 47 2/3 innings. By the end of the month the Twins were still a below-average offensive team but with a 17-10 July they found themselves five games up on the White Sox. Fans were surprised when the Twins made only one move at the deadline, dealing Mientkiewicz to the Boston Red Sox for an A-ball pitcher. Although the Twins may have “lost” this trade (Mientkiewicz helped the Red Sox win a World Series, then famously refused to give up the ball)... they were wise to turn over the reins.
In August, Morneau slashed .270/.348/.620 with 10 home runs and established himself as the Twins' much-needed power threat. Aided by his emergence, Minnesota finished the month with a 17-15 record, adding to their division lead. The second-place White Sox had their third consecutive losing month and the Twins were sitting comfortably in first place entering the final month of the season.
Now on cruise control, the Twins finished their season strong with a record of 19-12 in September and October, including a nine-game win streak that all but sealed the Central. While the Twins were locking up the division as a team, Santana was busy locking up his first Cy Young Award with an 11-0 record and 1.30 ERA after July 31st. He finished with 20 wins and league-leading marks in ERA (2.61), strikeouts (265), FIP (2.92), and WHIP (0.92).
The Twins officially clinched the division with 12 games left, and were slated for an ALDS rematch against the Yankees, who had baseball's second-best record and were coming off a 101-win campaign. Unfortunately, the Twins' season reached its end here, as they lost the series against the Yankees three games to one. Despite a more successful season overall, Minnesota's outcome was the same as '03.
Team MVP: Johan Santana (SP)
Other Contenders: Brad Radke (SP), Lew Ford (OF), Joe Nathan (RP), Carlos Silva (SP)
Well this was an easy one, as Santana won the 2004 Cy Young Award and, per fWAR, had the fifth-best season ever for a Twins pitcher. Minnesota went 24-10 in his starts, including 15-2 after July 1st as they built an insurmountable lead in the division.
The other four players listed all had career years in 2004 from an fWAR perspective, but were no match against the dominance of Johan. Radke posted his best K/BB ratio and second-lowest HR/9 while accepting the No. 2 billing in Minnesota's rotation. Who would have remembered that Ford led this team offensively (and it wasn’t even close) while also earning two MVP votes? Not me.
Nathan, in his first season with the club after being acquired alongside Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, came one save short of tying the Twins' single-season saves record. He got the record eventually.
3 Most Pivotal Games
April 15th: Won @ Cleveland Indians, 3-0
On Tax Day the Twins beat the Indians 3-0 behind eight shutout innings from Radke. The game saw Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones each hit their third home runs of the season, with Koskie stealing two bases. So what made this game pivotal? Nathan came on in the ninth inning to earn his first save as a Twin, and second save of his career. He would go on to convert 44 of 47 saves in 2004 and eventually would become the Twins' all-time saves leader with 260. This seemingly nondescript game in April turned out to be one that altered the Twins bullpen for years to come.
September 20th: Won @ Chicago White Sox, 8-2
The Twins clinched their third straight AL Central Division championship with an 8-2 win. They received seven solid innings from righty Carlos Silva who earned his 13th win of the season. The Twins got four home runs off the bats of Hunter, Koskie, Henry Blanco, and Luis Rivas. Thy would finish the season with 92 wins and nine games above the second-place Chicago White Sox.
October 6th: Lost @ New York Yankees, 7-6
Behind Santana, the Twins won the opening game of their AL Division Series match up against the Evil Empire 2-0. They entered Game 2 with Radke on the bump coming off a career year in which he limited opponents to under one home run per nine innings... something he would need to replicate against a team that hit 242, tying the White Sox for first.
The Twins jumped out to a 3-1 lead after two innings but by the time Radke’s day was done he had given up three home runs and the Twins were down 5-3. Three batters into the top of the eighth, the Twins had men on first and second with Morneau and Koskie coming to the plate, and one out. Coming to the mound, future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera. To everyone’s surprise, back-to-back hits tied the game at five, where it remained knotted until the top of the 12th when Hunter hit a solo shot off something named Tanyon Sturtze.
Gardy had turned to his newfound superstar closer in the 10th, and by now Nathan had thrown 32 pitches, not to mention 52 pitches over four innings in the previous five days. Still, the manager stuck with him. Visibly out of gas, Nathan gave up a pair of walks and then a game-tying ground-rule double to Álex Rodríguez. J.C. Romero relieved Nathan, but with Derek Jeter on third all it took was a Hideki Matsui sacrifice fly to give the Yankees the win and knot the series at one game apiece.
Spoiler alert: The Twins haven't won a postseason game since.
Joe Mauer Makes His Big-League Debut
On April 4th, Mauer made his MLB debut, batting eighth and playing catcher on Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians. He earned the first two of his 2,123 hits in a Twins uniform and scored two runs. His first Major League hit came off of Rafael Betancourt... a classic groundball single up the middle.
Significant Acquisitions of 2004
- Trevor Plouffe, Glen Perkins, and Anthony Swarzak were among the five first-round draft picks made by the Twins in 2004, a smorgasbord yielded by several free agent departures the prior offseason. Matt Tolbert is another recognizable, although less inspiring, name from the draft class.
- The Twins signed Wilson Ramos as an international free agent on July 7th.
- Brendan Harris and Orlando Cabrera were acquired by ... not the Twins. They went to the Expos and Red Sox respectively, as part of the four-team blockbuster that sent Mientkiewicz to Boston, but each infielder would find his way to Minnesota eventually.
From July 5th to the 8th, Minnesota Twins pitched 32 consecutive innings without giving up a run, including back-to-back-to-back complete game shutouts by Radke, Santana, and Kyle Lohse. This was in a three-game series at the Dome against the Kansas City Royals, who ended up being the second-worst team in baseball. Nonetheless, it currently stands as the team record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched by the team.
Santana Breaks Twins Single Season Strikeout Record
On September 24th, Santana broke the Twins' single-season strikeout record in his second-to-last start of the season, getting Ryan Ludwick of the Indians to strike out swinging. He ended up setting the record with 265 strikeouts in 228 innings. His 10.5 K/9 was good for third-best in franchise history until 2006, when Liriano would nudge him to fourth.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
One player we haven't seen mentioned is Juan Rincón, whose eighth-inning dominance bridged the gap to Nathan. Rincon had a 2.4 fWAR in 2004, dominating batters by striking out 11.6 per nine innings and posting a WPA of 2.11. He pitched 82 innings and earned 11 wins. People will often credit Nathan for the bullpen's dominance in 2004 but Rincon’s career year should not be forgotten.
In their season-opening home series against Cleveland, the Twins won their first two games on walk-offs, courtesy of clutch knocks by Shannon Stewart and José Offerman. They went on to win 10 games on walk-offs, and were also on the losing side of 10 walk-offs. Yep, the 2004 Twins had 20 of their 162 games decided on the final pitch.
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