MINNEAPOLIS -- After two straight years of playing in Game 163, the Twins spent much of the 2010 season talking about how the American League Central race would likely go down to the final week once again.There were even a few mentions by Twins players of how their success against the White Sox would bode well, and that they could potentially get home-field advantage if a one-game tiebreaker was needed for a third consecutive year. So perhaps it only seems fitting that on Tuesday night, the Twins became the first team in baseball to clinch their spot in the postseason -- their sixth AL Central title in the last nine seasons. After securing a 6-4 comeback victory over the Indians, the team waited around patiently before a 7-2 loss by the White Sox officially brought Minnesota's magic number to zero -- securing what had seemed over the past week to be an inevitable title for the club. And this year, there will be no fretting until the end for the Twins. "Considering we've been to Game 163 the last couple years, I think this might work out a little bit better for us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of clinching with 11 games left in the season.
"At least I know we'll be rested for the first game, and that's a nice thought that we can get some people healthy and kind of set things up a little bit easier than we have the last couple years."Clinching so early certainly seemed to be the last thing that the Twins were thinking about back in March when All-Star closer Joe Nathan went down with a season-ending elbow injury. It was the first of what would be many obstacles the Twins would have to overcome over the year. Justin Morneau, who was considered an AL MVP candidate in the first half, suffered a concussion on July 7 that has kept him off the field for more than two months. Opening Day starter Scott Baker has been sidelined twice by elbow tendinitis, and fellow starter Kevin Slowey also battled elbow issues. Nick Blackburn required a stint in the Minor Leagues to get himself back on track. A slow start offensively by Joe Mauer over the first half of the season was concerning, as were the nagging injuries that seemed to be bothering the All-Star catcher. Nick Punto, J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson combined to have seven stints on the disabled list. And the Twins turned to rookie third baseman Danny Valencia, who had expected to be a temporary callup, when injuries depleted the club's infield.
|"It seemed like no matter how many injuries we had, somebody always stepped up and kept us in it."|
|-- Pitching coach Rich Anderson|
But the Twins found a way to overcome any roadblock in their way and deliver one of the best second-half records in team history. The Twins are 45-18 since the All-Star break, good for a .714 winning percentage. Only two teams since 2001 have had a second-half winning percentage that high, and both were Oakland A's squads (2001 and 2002)."It seemed like no matter how many injuries we had, somebody always stepped up and kept us in it," said pitching coach Rick Anderson. "We don't give up," said Michael Cuddyer, who has started at five different positions this season and shifted to first base full time when Morneau went down. "We don't really ever give up. We continue to plug away and continue to play good baseball. When you worry about only that, you'll have success in the second half." The Twins entered the 2010 season with high expectations, arriving at Spring Training with a record payroll for the franchise nearing $100 million and having added pieces like designated hitter Jim Thome, Hudson and Hardy to what they felt was already a strong core. The moves by general manager Bill Smith continued during the season, as right before the July 31 Trade Deadline he acquired closer Matt Capps and then got left-hander Brian Fuentes in a waiver trade with the Angels in August. "I think the goal going into the offseason was to address the depth," Cuddyer said. "They obviously didn't know we were going to lose those guys, and unfortunately we did. Then we addressed more depth and we continued to get deeper. You've got to give all the credit in the world to [Smith] and all those guys in the front office. They did a heck of a job bringing in the depth that we needed." The strong second half has allowed the Twins to do something on Tuesday night that they hadn't done in any of their recent pennant races -- secure the title well before the end of the season and hopefully give themselves the rest that they'd been missing in recent years. In 2006, the Twins didn't clinch the division title until the final day of the season, having not led at any point before that. The Twins lost to the White Sox in Game 163 in '08 to miss out on the postseason, and then they rallied from seven games down in September in '09 by beating the Tigers in the one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome to clinch the AL Central title. But even the two times they made the postseason, they didn't have much energy left after some exhausting races to the titles. Now, the Twins seem ready to use the little over a week and a half remaining in the regular season to prepare themselves for what they hope will be a long postseason run. "You make the playoffs -- that's a great achievement in itself," said Mauer. "This team has other goals, too. We're on the right track."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.