Twins in the 2000s: The 2006 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 2006 season.
Team Record: 96-66
Finish: 1st Place in AL Central
All-Stars: Johan Santana (SP), Francisco Liriano (SP), and Joe Mauer ( C )
Awards: Justin Morneau (AL MVP; Silver Slugger, 1B), Johan Santana (AL Cy Young), Joe Mauer (Gold Glove, C), Torii Hunter (Gold Glove, CF)
Playoffs: Lost to OAK 3-0 in ALDS
The Minnesota Twins 2006 season started about as poorly as one could have imagined. The team’s rough early going culminated on June 7th, when Justin Morneau was benched for poor performance (.236 BA), the Twins lost to the Seattle Mariners on a walk-off home run, and Minnesota’s record dipped to 25-33, 11 1/2 games back in the AL Central.
While June 7th was the lowest point of the season for the Twins, it was also the turning point. Following that walk-off loss, the Twins won 21 of their next 23 games and turned around their year completely. The contrast in numbers from before and after June 7th is staggering.
Several different players sparked a historic turnaround for the 2006 Twins. Let’s dive into a few:
- Justin Morneau
After getting benched on June 7th, Morneau's season took a complete 180. His first two months went so poorly that Morneau won the MVP award despite not being voted in as an All-Star – just the eighth time in the expansion era that this has happened.
- Francisco Liriano
Liriano moved into a starting pitching role for the Twins in the end of May, and by the beginning of June cemented himself as a clear-cut superstar. From his first start on May 19th through July 28th, Liriano pitched like the best player in baseball. Unfortunately, he was sent to the injured list on August 11th with elbow soreness. After attempting to rehab for a month and making one appearance in September, he was tabbed for Tommy John surgery. Thus, one of the most promising young pitching careers of the 2000s was derailed. For my money, Liriano remains the greatest injury-related "what if" in Twins history.
- Brad Radke
Radke had an abysmal start to the 2006 season, allowing four or more earned runs in seven of his first eight starts. He managed to turn the tide at the same time as his teammates though, notching quality starts in 10 of 12 starts from June 14th through August 13th. What makes Radke’s midseason turnaround even more impressive is that he did it with a torn labrum, which he dealt with for the entirety of the 2006 season. This ended up being Radke's last rodeo, as he retired following his gritty yet ineffective start in Game 3 of the ALDS in a loss against Oakland.
While the bullpen was great for the entirety of 2006, they really turned it up and were lights-out after June 7th. From June 8th through the end of the season, the Twins’ bullpen led the majors with its ERA, which was more than a half-run better than the second-place team during that time. Leading the way down the stretch for the bullpen was the trio of Dennys Reyes, Joe Nathan and Juan Rincón, who each threw 50+ innings and posted ERAs of 0.89, 1.58 and 2.91 respectively.
While these players all turned it on midway through the season, others were more or less phenomenal from start to finish, like Joe Mauer – who became the first AL catcher to win a batting title with his .347 average – and the superstar pitcher I chose as team MVP, who I'll cover shortly..
Other key contributors included:
- Nick Punto, who took over at third base after the ill-advised Tony Batista experiment fizzled, providing scrappy stability with this .290 average and outstanding defense.
- Jason Bartlett, who himself unseated an unworthy veteran starter on the left side of the infield (shortstop Juan Castro) and batted .309 in 99 games.
- Michael Cuddyer, who settled in as a full-time right fielder and finally enjoyed his breakout season with 24 home runs and 109 RBIs. Meanwhile, his neighbor in the outfield Torii Hunter was customarily excellent, with an .831 OPS, 31 homers, 98 RBIs, and another Gold Glove.
- Boof Bonser, who slotted in as a solid mid-rotation starter and – alongside monster performances from Liriano and Nathan – briefly made the 2003 A.J. Pierzynski trade look like even more of a lopsided steal than it's remembered as today.
By winning the AL Central, the Twins avoided another playoff matchup against the first-place Yankees, and instead secured a bid against the third-seeded Oakland Athletics. Despite holding home field advantage, the Twins were swept in three games by the A’s, and the spectacular regular-season turnaround ended in playoff disappointment for Minnesota.
Team MVP: Johan Santana (SP)
Other Contenders: Justin Morneau (1B), Joe Mauer ©, Joe Nathan (RP), Francisco Liriano (SP)
Despite Morneau winning the American League MVP, I believe that Santana was the team MVP. Santana unanimously earned the American League Cy Young award as well as the pitching triple crown, leading the American League in wins (19), strikeouts (245) and ERA (2.77). Santana was worth 6.7 fWAR for the Minnesota Twins, 2.9 wins better than Morneau.
While Morneau certainly helped fuel the team's second-half surge, Santana was outstanding all season for the Twins, leading them to a 27-7 record in his starts as the steady force in a rotation that lost its energizing young fireballer to a sudden elbow injury and its elder statesman to a gradually deteriorating shoulder.
While Morneau was voted league MVP, there's a pretty strong argument to be made that he was – at best – the Twins' third-most valuable player behind Santana and Mauer. In fact, it's rather difficult to argue otherwise, without a huge over-reliance on stats like HR and RBI, and a belief that production in August is somehow more important than production in April.
3 Most Pivotal Games
July 2nd: Won vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8-0
Heading into this contest, the Twins were riding a nine-game winning streak, with their newly-found “second ace” ready to take the hill. Liriano gave his best game as a Minnesota Twin, and one of the better pitching performances in recent Twins history, tossing eight shutout innings, allowing just 3 hits and striking out 12 batters. This pushed the Twins' winning streak to 10 games, and fired up a hometown crowd that was really starting to believe in a potential division comeback for the Twins.
September 10th: Won vs. Detroit Tigers, 12-1
Minnesota headed into the final game of its final season series against the division-leading Tigers facing a three-game deficit. Drop this game, and the Twins would split the series and fall to four games out. Win the game, and they would take the series 3-1, cutting the division deficit down to two.
The Twins left little room for drama, scoring 12 runs and riding an 11-strikeout performance from Santana.
October 3rd: Lost vs. Oakland Athletics, 3-2
The Metrodome was rocking in Game 1 of the ALDS as the Twins trotted out Santana, hoping to take a 1-0 series lead. Santana pitched a gem, allowing just two earned runs in eight innings. Unfortunately for the Twins, their offense couldn’t get anything going all game as they managed just two runs on five hits. A two-homer game from Frank Thomas – now tormenting the Twins in a new uniform – proved decisive.
While this didn’t end their season, losing Game 1 with their ace on the mound was incredibly deflating for the Twins, and was the beginning of the end for their postseason run.
Loss of a Legend
While not a "highlight" by any definition, the 2006 Twins season began with a sad moment in franchise history when, on March 6th, news came out that Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett had died. The season was one filled with memories of Puckett, from tribute videos to jersey patches.
Target Field Bill Passes
After years of clamoring for a new stadium, Twins fans finally got their wish on May 26th, when Governor Tim Pawlenty signed legislation approving the construction of Target Field in front of the Metrodome crowd. This was a momentous occasion, as outdoor baseball would finally return to Minnesota and any lingering threat of the team's relocation evaporated.
Birth of the “Piranhas”
A large part of the identity of the mid-2000s Twins teams was the “piranhas” — a term coined by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén in 2006, describing the division rival's propensity for trotting out scrappy players who hit bloop singles, ran out grounders and grinded their way to hits and runs. To (politely) quote the White Sox manager, “Mauer? Fine, yeah, a good hitter, but worry about the little [guys], they’re on base all the time.”
Kubel Walks Off Red Sox with a Grand Salami
After a pitching duel for the ages that featured Santana and Curt Schilling both spinning eight-inning, one-run gems, the Twins and Red Sox found themselves in an extra-inning marathon. After Boston scored a run in the top of the 12th inning, the Twins proceeded to load the bases in the bottom of the 12th for Jason Kubel, who blasted a walk-off grand slam against Red Sox pitcher Julián Tavárez and won the game for the Twins. Watch the home run and hear the recollection from Kubel in the video below:
In a 20-game span from June 11th through July 3rd, the Twins went 19-1. Despite the run of wins, they only gained 2 1/2 games in the division as the Tigers went on a 17-4 run during the same time span. In a rare change of pace, the 2006 AL Central was home to multiple excellent teams playing extremely well and blasting into the postseason.
Liriano Outduels Clemens
The showdown between Liriano and Houston's Roger Clemens on June 22nd drew much hype – the rookie sensation (5-1 with a 1.50 ERA in six starts since joining the Twins' rotation) facing off against the grizzled all-time pitching great, still remarkably effective at age 43.
Clemens allowed two runs on six hits in five innings. Liriano allowed two runs on four hits in eight innings, and took the W. This series-clinching victory sent the league a message: Liriano was for real, and so were the Twins, in the midst of the 19-1 streak cited above.
Final Day Drama
Heading into the final day of the regular season, the Twins and Tigers were tied for the division lead. Minnesota took care of business by beating the White Sox, 5-1. After their win, the Twins (and their fans) shifted to scoreboard-watching and cheered on the last-place Royals, who completed a series sweep of Detroit in a 12-inning affair. The Royals victory secured a division title for the Twins, their third in four seasons.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
Following the Royals’ improbable series-ending sweep of the Tigers, which made Minnesota's division championship possible, Hunter sent four bottles of champagne to Kansas City's Mike Sweeney, as a thank you gesture. This was a violation of baseball rules, and the commissioner’s office informed the teams of this, forcing Sweeney to send back the (unopened) bottles of champagne.
On May 27th, Rincón entered a game against the Seattle Mariners with the bases loaded and nobody out in the 8th inning. Rincón was able to escape the inning with just one pitch, inducing a triple-play from Kenji Johjima.
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