The Minnesota Twins are the only Minnesota franchise to win a “Big Four” professional championship in my lifetime. In fact, they have won two. Because of this, they will always hold an important piece of the hearts and minds of the Minnesota sports fan, even if the Vikings have the biggest following and they play in the State of Hockey. 1987 and 1991 are not the only great seasons the team has had though. Let’s take a look at the top ten seasons in Twins history. Please note, this list only considers their time in Minnesota, so no Washington Senators seasons will be making an appearance.
In many ways, the 2004 Minnesota Twins season was a carbon copy of their 2003 season. The win-loss record was within two games; they won the AL Central and lost in the ALDS to the New York Yankees in four games. What made 2004 a more fun season, if not necessarily more successful, was Johan Santana.
Even though he won the pitching Triple Crown in 2006, I believe that 2004 was the finest season of Santana’s career. He won his first of two AL Cy Young awards as well as his first ERA and strikeout titles. Even though he finished 20-6, he did not make the All Star Game, as he started 7-6 then finished a blistering 13-0, the best second half record for a pitcher in Major League history. Torii Hunter was the biggest part of the defense that helped Santana’s incredible season, picking up the fourth Gold Glove of his career.
The only season in the Target Field era to crack the top ten was also the first at the beautiful Downtown Minneapolis ballpark. Jim Thome joined the fray and added epic moonshots to the Minneapolis skyline. Ron Gardenhire picked up the only AL Manager of the Year trophy of his career despite being close many other seasons. Like a couple others on this list, the season ended in a sweep, this time at the hands of those damn Yankees.
Actually, the most notable event of the 2010 Twins seasons was an awful one. Justin Morneau suffered a season-ending concussion when he got kneed in the head in Toronto trying to break up a double play on July 7. Morneau was in the midst of an incredible season at the time, with a .345 average and 18 home runs, better numbers than even his 2006 Most Valuable Player campaign. Though he would play for the Twins again, he never fully regained his form. His best season after 2010 came as a member of the Colorado Rockies, when he won the National League batting title in 2014.
Unfortunately, since 2002 all of the Twins postseason appearances have ended the same way, losing in three or four games in the first round. Because of this, I had to find regular season reasons to break ties. The best season in the career of one of the best Twins ever puts 2009 over the top of 2003 (which narrowly missed the list), 2004 and 2010.
Though he was slowed considerably by injuries, Joe Mauer was one of the best hitting catchers of all-time. He holds the highest career and single season average as a catcher in MLB history to go along with three batting titles, five Silver Slugger awards and one MVP. 2009 was his Most Valuable season. That year, Mauer found power he has not had before or since, belting 28 homers despite missing the first month of the season. He also collected one of his batting titles that year as well, hitting .365, a career high.
There is one other reason 2009 ranks high on the list, despite ending in a playoff sweep against the Yankees: Game 163. The Twins went 17-4 down the stretch to catch and tie the Detroit Tigers. What followed was an incredible tiebreaker game at the Metrodome, won 6-5 by the Twins in 12 innings. The game was so good it helped inspired the inception of having two Wild Card teams per League to guarantee one-game playoffs every season.
The 2006 Minnesota Twins featured the American League Most Valuable Player in Justin Morneau, the batting champ in Joe Mauer and the AL Cy Young winner in Johan Santana. However, on a team full of stars, Francisco Liriano’s season may be the most memorable.
Liriano made his MLB debut in 2005, but took the baseball world by storm in 2006. Using a devastating slider to tremendous effect, he posted a 12-3 record, made the All Star Game as a rookie and had a 2.16 ERA. Unfortunately, he experienced forearm pain that stemmed from ligament issues that required Tommy John surgery. He was lost for the stretch run and never quite got back to the level of utter dominance he displayed in 2006.
Oh, and the Twins were swept in the ALDS. It was to the Oakland A’s this time, so at least there was some variety.
The 1970 Twins won the American League West division for the second consecutive season. Pitcher Jim Perry had a phenomenal season, compiling a 24-12 record and picking up the American League Cy Young award. Perry was joined in the Midsummer Classic that year by teammates Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Tony Oliva. For the second consecutive season, the Twins faced off against Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and the juggernaut Baltimore Orioles, and were swept again one round short of the World Series.
After narrowly missing out on the postseason in 1967, the Twins returned to the playoffs in 1969 by virtue of winning the American League Western division. Harmon Killebrew had one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career, blasting 49 home runs and winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Fellow Hall of Famer Rod Carew won his first American League batting title, which he followed up with six more before his career was over.
1969 was also the enigmatic Bill Martin’s only season at the helm of the Twins. His one season as Minnesota’s manager was very successful, but ended after they were swept by Baltimore in the ALCS. That is not why he was fired though. Martin got into a bar fight near Tiger Stadium in Detroit with two of his own pitchers, Dave Boswell and Bob Allison. With Billy Martin, it was never boring.
The 2002 Twins season is their first great season I can truly remember. I was only five years old when the Twins won it all, so my memories of that are shaky at best. For most of my childhood, the Twins were several shades of bad, ranging from mediocre down to horrific. Things finally started to change in 2001 though. Even though they ultimately fell short, the Twins battled Cleveland all season for the AL Cenrtal crown. A tired Tom Kelly would step down after the season, but Ron Gardenhire stepped in and the Twins picked up right where they had left off in 2002.
The Twins, under the threat of contraction, won the American League Central to get back to the postseason for the first time since their World Championship in 1991. Led by solid pitching and great defense, the Twins went on to beat the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS before succumbing to the Anaheim Angels in a lopsided, five game ALCS. Not bad for a team the Commissioner of Baseball wanted to make disappear.
Minnesota’s first Fall Classic happened in 1965. In one of the final years before divisions were formed, the Twins went 102-60, comfortably securing the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series. Shortstop Zoilo Versalles had the finest season of his career, winning the American League MVP in the process. The All Star Game was held in Bloomington, Minnesota that year as well, with six Twins making the roster for the AL.
In a fantastic season, the Twins ultimately fell one win short of a title. Their World Series opponent Los Angeles Dodgers happened to feature two of the greatest pitchers of all-time in Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. The Twins actually beat Drysdale and Koufax in Minnesota in Games 1 and 2, and looked like they were on their way to a world championship. Unfortunately, the Dodgers came roaring back, winning all three games in Los Angeles. The Twins prevailed in Game 6, forcing a decisive Game 7. Dodger manager Walt Alston chose to pitch Koufax on short rest instead of Drysdale, and he was rewarded with a complete game, 10 strikeout gem in a Dodgers 2-0 victory.
Finally, a championship! In 1986, the Twins were a young team trying to build around young stars such as Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek. In 1987, they were…better, but still not a great regular season team. In fact, they were the first World Series participant to have ever been outscored during the regular season. Being before the Wild Card era, the Twins obviously won their division. However, the AL West was weak that year, and the Twins only had the fifth best record in the AL during the regular season.
While they may not have been a statistically great team, the 1987 Twins were a clutch team. The Twins beat the favored Detroit Tigers four games to one in the ALCS. Then, the Twins used home field advantage to great effect. At this time, home field advantage alternated between leagues each year, and it was the American League’s turn. The Twins capitalized on this, as the home team won all seven games and Frank Viola captured the Series’ MVP. Though the Series was light on drama for the casual observer, it was a thrill for all Minnesota fans.
The best Twins season of all-time ended with one of the greatest games of all-time deciding the greatest World Series ever played. Just like in 1987, the Twins went from worst to first to win their division. It also shared the same distinction as 1987, with the home team winning all seven games. What set it apart from 1987, and every other World Series, was the drama within those seven games.
Five one run games, four games that were decided in the final at-bat and three games in extra innings made for high theater in the ’91 Fall Classic. The first game were dull by this Series’ standards, with the Twins winning Game 1 5-2. Then, Kevin Tapani defeated Tom Glavine 3-2 in a pitcher’s duel in Game 2. Game 2 was also when Kent Hrbek infamously doubled off Ron Gant, resulting in death threats and the greatest bobble head ever made. Game 3 in Atlanta went 12 innings. The Twins ran out of hitters, forcing reliever Rick Aguilera to hit in the top of the twelfth. He flew out with the bases loaded to end the threat, and then the Braves scored in the bottom half to win the game and get back into the Series. The Braves won another tight game in Game 4, scoring the decisive run in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. Game 5 was the only blowout of the Series, with the Braves winning 14-5 and taking the lead in the Series 3-2. That game also meant that the Twins have never won a road World Series game, and have not as a franchise since the Senators won one in 1925.
If all of that wasn’t good enough, things got legendary in Games 6 and 7. Twins icon and Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett made the catch against the Plexiglas to prevent a huge extra base hit off of Gant’s bat in the third inning that would have scored a run. Puckett later ended the game with an eleventh inning walk off home run to left center, punctuated by Jack Buck’s famous, “And we’ll see you…tomorrow night!” call on CBS.
Game 7 belonged to the starting pitchers. St. Paul native Jack Morris and John Smoltz locked horns in a duel for the ages. Smoltz lasted into the eighth, Morris never left the game. Though both teams had multiple excellent scoring opportunities, the game headed to the tenth inning scoreless. Morris trotted back out for the tenth, and retired the Braves in order. By the end of the top of the tenth, Morris had thrown 126 pitches.
Finally, in the bottom of the tenth, the Twins ended the greatest World Series ever played. Dan Gladden started things off with a broken bat double. Chuck Knoblauch sacrifice bunted Gladden to third, followed by Braves manager Bobby Cox opting to intentionally walk Puckett and Hrbek. The Braves were forced to play the outfielders in to try to prevent the winning run, and pinch hitter Gene Larkin lofted a single over them to end the Series. Since the teams I root for never win championships anymore, I still watch the 1991 World Series highlights and the 2011 UMD Bulldogs National Championship hockey highlights way more than anyone should in 2017.