Twins in the 2000s: The 2009 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 2009 season.
Team Record: 87-76
Finish: 1st Place in AL Central
All-Stars: Joe Mauer ( C ), Justin Morneau (1B), Joe Nathan (RP)
Awards: Joe Mauer (AL MVP; Gold Glove & Silver Slugger, C)
Playoffs: Lost to NYY 3-0 in ALDS
The Joe Mauer season.
Minnesota's 2009 campaign was a memorable and historically significant one for many reasons, but this is how it will always be remembered: a former first-round pick and hometown kid fully realizing his potential, and taking over the game for five spectacular months.
A less charitable recollection might frame the 2009 season more as one in which the management above Mauer, and talent around him, failed to aptly support his absurdly dominant performance. The Twins required a fierce late surge and intense tiebreaker to win a fairly weak division and skim into the postseason, where they were quickly sent packing.
But as the St. Paul native and childhood Twins fan said goodbye to the only Twins stadium he'd ever known – the Metrodome opened almost exactly one year before he was born – he sent it out with a bang.
After missing all of April due to back pain caused by inflammation in his pelvic sacroiliac joint, Mauer played his first game on May 1st, homering on his first swing of the season and setting the tone for one of the most ridiculous months in Twins history: .414/.500/.838 with 11 home runs, eight doubles, 32 RBIs, and 19 walks in 28 games (122 PA).
And yet the Twins, who entered May at .500, finished the month two games below. This was the story for much of the summer: Mauer delivering Herculean efforts while the team around him failed to elevate.
This wasn't as true on the offensive end; the 2009 Twins scored the fourth-most runs in the American League and posted the fifth-highest OPS. Mauer got help from:
- Denard Span, now the entrenched leadoff hitter and a natural fit for it with his patience (.392 OBP and 70 walks) and speed (23 steals and 10 triples).
- First baseman Justin Morneau and designated hitter Jason Kubel, who delivered prodigious power production from the left side, combining for 58 home runs and 203 RBIs. This would be the last time two Twins teammates drove in 100-plus runs until 2019.
- Michael Cuddyer rebounded from an injury-marred 2008 and rounded back into the prime form he showed in '06, slashing .276/.342/.520 with 32 homers and 94 RBIs as a critical righty-swinging complement to the lefty sluggers above.
Shortstop became such a pit, handled by Nick Punto and Brendan Harris, that general manager Bill Smith traded on deadline day for veteran Athletics shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who proved to be a clear improvement down the stretch. This wasn't the only in-season move Smith would make to energize a ballclub struggling to keep pace with the frontrunning Tigers.
Minnesota's pitching staff was much more needy. This group, outside of closer Joe Nathan – who made his fourth All-Star team and saved a franchise-record 47 games with a 2.10 ERA – was just not very good.
Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano was a complete mess, rarely showing flashes of his pre-surgery dominance and mixing in plenty of erratic clunkers en route to a 5-13 record and career-worst 5.80 ERA. Questions about conditioning plagued the 25-year-old as his fastball velocity lingered around 90.
Meanwhile, fellow young lefty Glen Perkins also fell off a cliff, failing to back up his promising 2008 showing with a 5.89 ERA in 18 appearances (17 starts). Rookie Anthony Swarzak was lit up for a 6.25 ERA while going 3-7 over 12 starts. Kevin Slowey pitched to a 4.86 ERA in 15 starts before requiring season-ending wrist surgery in early July.
Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn were once again the rotation's steadiest contributors, each tossing 200 innings with a roughly average ERA, but the lack of quality behind them, coupled with Nathan getting little help in the bullpen, meant Minnesota's outstanding offense was being outscored too often.
Three moves by Smith in August helped turn the tides, providing crucial stability down the stretch:
- Starter Carl Pavano was acquired from Cleveland on August 7th in exchange for prospect Yohan Pino. Pavano pitched decently for the Twins, with a 4.64 ERA over 73 2/3 innings, but he provided length and the Twins went 8-4 in his starts. His biggest impact was yet to come.
- On August 22nd, rookie left-hander Brian Duensing moved to the rotation full-time after 14 of his first 15 big-league appearances came in relief. Duensing went 5-1 with a 2.68 ERA in eight starts.
- On August 28th, reliever Jon Rauch was acquired from Arizona for prospect Kevin Mulvey. Rauch stepped up in a leaky bullpen, holding opponents scoreless in 16 of 17 appearances for a 1.72 ERA while being credited with five wins.
This time it was against the Tigers, at home. And this time, Minnesota would come out on top of a thrilling nailbiter, capturing the division with a walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th.
Following a relentless charge to an unlikely postseason berth in the final weeks, the Twins were out of gas once they got there. With little time to celebrate a draining victory, they packed up and headed to New York, where Ron Gardenhire had little choice but to start the rookie Duensing in Game 1. He struggled and the Twins lost, setting the stage for their first (but certainly not last) time being swept out of October by the Yankees.
Mauer was robbed of a key double in Game 2 by umpire Phil Cuzzi's bogus foul call, but still batted .417 (5-for-12) in the three ALDS games, capping a season for the ages. As the Twins prepared to open a new chapter with the arrival of Target Field, they were going to need to open the checkbook and pay handsomely to lock up the handsome face of their franchise.
Team MVP: Joe Mauer ( C )
Other Contenders: Denard Span (CF), Justin Morneau (1B), Jason Kubel (DH), Nick Blackburn (SP)
Duh. Despite missing a full month, Mauer's 7.9 bWAR in 2009 ties Kirby Puckett's 1988 mark for fourth in Minnesota Twins history. The only superior seasons according Baseball Reference came from Rod Carew (1975 & '77) and Chuck Knoblauch (1996).
Mauer won the "Sabermetric Triple Crown" by leading the league in all three AVG/OBP/SLG slash categories (.365/.444/.587). He was the first catcher ever to do so, and the first American Leaguer since George Brett in 1980. Not only were his rate stats tremendous, but Mauer also filled up the volume columns: 28 homers, 30 doubles, 96 RBIs, 94 runs scored. He was an All-Star, MVP, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger. Arguably the best season ever by a Twin.
3 Most Pivotal Games
May 1st: Won vs. Kansas City Royals, 7-5
Mauer's delayed start was hotly anticipated, and he did not disappoint. His first swing against the dreaded Sidney Ponson sent a baseball over the left field wall, signaling the prodigal son's arrival.
Mauer added a double and walk, scoring three times as Morneau chipped in a homer and three RBIs. The relief trio that followed Slowey's five innings – Matt Guerrier, José Mijares, Nathan – would become Minnesota's bullpen bedrock throughout the year. This game perfectly exemplified the 2009 team's formula for winning.
September 13th: Won vs. Oakland Athletics, 8-0
Even with Mauer leading a strong offense, the Twins just kept hanging at or below the .500 mark. By this point in mid-September, they were underwater, trailing Detroit by 5 1/2 with only 20 games left to play. Things were looking dire. But on this date, they dominated the A's and springed in to some serious momentum.
Duensing threw seven shutout innings. Mauer went 3-for-4 with a homer. The victory set off an 11-1 stretch that moved the Twins within two games of the Tigers, a gap they'd close in the final weekend.
October 6th: Won vs. Detroit Tigers, 6-5
Without question the greatest Twins game since 2000, and perhaps the greatest Major League Baseball game of the past 20 years period. Minnesota's race against Detroit came down to the wire, as the two teams faced off in a decisive Game 163 at the Metrodome.
The Twins sent their best starter to the mound in Baker, and he delivered a low-grade quality start with six innings and three earned runs. Tigers rookie Rick Porcello countered with a strong outing of his own. The teams battled to a tie through nine. In the top of the 10th, Brandon Inge's RBI double put Detroit ahead, but Cuddyer countered with a leadoff triple, scoring on Matt Tolbert's game-tying single.
In the bottom of the 12th, with closer Fernando Rodney pitching for the Tigers, Gómez opened with a base hit, moving to second on Young's one-out walk. Up came the embattled Casilla, who tapped a seeing-eye single up the middle. Gómez rounded third, slid in headfirst with the winning run, and the Metrodome went crazy. For the last time, it would turn out.
Jason Kubel Caps Cycle with Grand Slam
The Twins have had three players hit for the cycle since the turn of the century, and two happened within five weeks of one another in 2009. While Cuddyer's feat on May 22nd was cool to see, it couldn't hold a candle to the dramatics of Kubel's on April 17th.
Coming to the plate with bases loaded against the Angels in the bottom of the eighth, Twins trailing 9-7, Kubel needed a home run to complete the cycle. Wait a minute ... a go-ahead grand slam to complete the cycle? Too good to be true, right?
Nope. Kubel took a hanger from Angels reliever Jason Bulger deep to right. The Twins won and Kubel was on his way to a career year.
Twins Bring in Pivotal International Class
After the international signing period opened up on July 2nd, the Twins made perhaps their most impactful splash ever in this market. Over a span of four months, they signed teenagers Max Kepler out of Germany, and Miguel Sanó and Jorge Polanco out of the Dominican Republic. It should be looked back upon as the most critical contribution of Smith's short tenure as GM, and a worthy one at that.
Ten years later, these three would become key figures in the most explosive offense in franchise history.
Joe Nathan Breaks Twins Single-Season Save Record
Set at 45 by Eddie Guardado seven years earlier, Nathan nabbed the title by saving 47 games on 52 tries. He rattled off 12 straight in September as the Twins closed the gap on Detroit. Sadly, Nathan's historic season ended on a sour note; his blown save in Game 2 of the ALDS, on Álex Rodríguez's two-run homer in the ninth, was a gut-punch the team couldn't recover from. I'm not sure they have since?
Saying Goodbye to the Metrodome
The final Twins game ever played in the Dome followed that Game 2 letdown, a 4-1 snoozer that ushered Minnesota out of the playoffs. It was a bummer. But the ballpark's final days will forever be tied to that incredible Game 163, and the raucous applause that rang throughout the Metrodome's silo-esque interior as Gómez slid across home, harkening back to the glory Octobers of 1987 and '91.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
In December of 2008, the Twins had taken interest in a mid-30s knuckleballer by the name of R.A. Dickey, signing him to a minor-league contract. They gave him a shot in 2009, as Dickey made 35 appearances including one start, but he wasn't too impressive with a 4.62 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. The team cut ties. Turns out they were just a little too early on the late bloomer.
The next year Dickey signed with the New York Mets and posted a 2.84 ERA over 174 1/3 innings, in a rotation that also featured Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. In 2012, Dickey would win the NL Cy Young at age 37.
Phil Cuzzi sucks.
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