Twins unable to shake playoff drought
Perennial contender has not advanced to ALCS since '02
MINNEAPOLIS -- They have made amazing late-season runs to win American League Central crowns when it seemed impossible.
They finished 2009 with a 17-4 run to erase Detroit's seven-game lead in the season's final month and become the first team to make up a three-game deficit with four games to play.
And only three other teams have more division titles this decade.
Yet with the Yankees' 4-1 victory on Sunday night at the Metrodome, finishing a three-game first-round sweep, the Twins once again were prevented from getting out of the Division Series round of the postseason. Since Minnesota beat Oakland in five games in the ALDS in 2002, its only series win of the decade, it has lost 16 of 19 playoff games -- including nine straight.
When analyzing the past 10 years, the judgment on whether the Twins were a great success or underachievers centers on whether AL Central top prizes in 2002-04, '06 and '09 are enough support to argue the case.
"You have to be proud to win the division five times in the decade," veteran Michael Cuddyer said. "Obviously, nobody else in the division did that. At the same time, it's frustrating to only once get past the first round."
"If you have an answer for me, I'll take it, because I haven't seen the second round yet," Minnesota closer Joe Nathan said. "Unfortunately for us, we haven't been able to get over that hump."
Cuddyer was asked if he had a reason for the Twins' playoff drought. He paused for a moment and then pointed out how his team has gone up against the Yankees in three of those five series losses.
"Plus, breaks didn't go our way," Cuddyer said. "That's what happens. Each year is different. Each team is different."
Push for the pennant
Minnesota's five division crowns stand behind only the Yankees (eight), Braves (six) and Cardinals (six) since 2000. The Angels have also won the AL West five times in that period.
But in regard to playoff series wins, the Twins, A's and Braves ranked at the bottom by capturing one apiece. As Cuddyer said, each Minnesota team had its own set of unique circumstances.
For example, in 2006, the Twins overtook the Tigers on the last day of the regular season to enter the playoffs with home-field advantage and the division title. They had Johan Santana on the mound for Game 1 and for a possible Game 4, but Barry Zito outpitched Santana in the opener and Minnesota was eventually swept.
In 2004, the Twins won the first game at Yankee Stadium behind Santana, only to lose the next three. Two of the losses were extra-inning affairs.
And this year, after winning an AL Central tiebreaker over Detroit, one of the most exciting games in franchise history, simply to get to the playoffs, they went out in three to the Yankees.
Poor baserunning plagued Minnesota all series, not to mention Nathan, one of the best closers in the game, blowing a two-run lead in the ninth on Friday by giving up Alex Rodriguez's two-run home run. Without Justin Morneau, Joe Crede and Kevin Slowey, the Twins were operating at far from full strength.
Even with those absences, though, Minnesota still had a chance. And even with another playoff defeat, the Twins believe their postseason day will come soon.
"Some of that is about timing, it's about how your roster evolves," Minnesota general manager Bill Smith said. "Right now, we have young starters, and you always hope that they develop into veteran guys.
"With Santana, when he started the first year or two in the playoffs, he was a young starter. Nick Blackburn has pitched some huge games and Scott Baker has pitched some huge games, [Carl] Pavano has pitched some huge games for us. With the exception of Pavano, most of our guys are young starters.
"We've watched [Joe] Mauer and Morneau evolve, Nathan evolve," Smith said. "Now Nathan is one of the dominant closers in the game. Four years ago, when we were in the playoffs, he was not. He was a young closer that was building his resume."
Smith chalked up some of the playoff struggles to bad luck, as Cuddyer also pointed out. As long as they keep winning the AL Central, though, the chance will exist for Minnesota to get over that playoff hump.
"Every game we play here, our guys get more experience," Smith said. "And that tide will turn. The Cleveland Indians used to kick sand in our faces for eight years, and that tide turned. We've had a good run in our division."
"Who knows? Maybe if we can get over that hump, we can get a little confidence and roll from there," Nathan said. "Until we get there, I have no answers for you."
"There's no consolation prize, and it's tough to lose -- period," Cuddyer said. "Not a lot of people have a chance to get to the playoffs. So when you get there, you want to make the most of it."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.