Justin Morneau played his last game of 2009 on September 12, his team 5.5 games back of Detroit, and even a half-game back of Chicago, in the AL Central. The Twins were, in fact, two games below .500 at that point, and with just 20 games remaining their chances of making up the deficit seemed bleak. They had just lost three straight and Morneau, their second best hitter, was done for the season with a stress fracture in his lower back. It looked like the MVP-Mauer-led Twins would watch from their homes in October.
What came next surprised everyone. The sans-Morneau Twins rattled off six straight wins, including the first two in a series with Detroit. They dropped that last game, but then came back to win another five straight, including a three-game sweep of the White Sox. After dropping three of four, including two to Detroit, they won their final four games of the season. With a little help from Detroit they were able to catch up and force a one-game playoff, which they also won. Including the sudden death game the Twins went 17-4 in their last 21 games. All without Morneau and his .371 wOBA.
This year the Twins started off hot, but tapered off a bit as the season wore on. Morneau had been doing his part, producing a .447 wOBA and 5.2 WAR through July 7. But on that day, while sliding into second, he took a knee to the head and suffered a concussion. That figured to keep him out for a few days, but his recovery has not gone so well. A little more than a week after the injury the Twins placed him on the DL, and to this day he remains there. There is no real timetable for his return, though it sounds like the weekend is the earliest possibility. That has to be hurting the Twins right now.
Instead of seeing the Twins fall further behind the White Sox, we’ve again seen them gain ground since Morneau’s injury. After the game during which Morneau sustained his injury the Twins fell to 45-39, 1.5 games back of Detroit and a half game back of Chicago. Losing Morneau looked like an even bigger blow this year than it was last year. Joe Mauer led the Twins then, but his production has dropped a bit this year. A .379 wOBA from a catcher is excellent, but it’s still significantly below the .438 wOBA he produced last year. Morneau has led the team this year, and so the Twins have been without their best bat for more than a month now.
The Morneau-less lineup didn’t fare as well as it did in 2009, at least off the bat. In fact, the Twins dropped three straight after the injury, scoring just eight runs in those games. That put them four games behind Detroit and 3.5 games behind Chicago. At just three games over .500 and having no idea when their best hitter would return, there was some doubt about the Twins’ season. They had gone from best team in the Central to also-rans in a short span. How could they survive without Morneau?
After those losses, though, the Twins caught fire. They beat Detroit to avoid a sweep, and after dropping the first of a four game series to Chicago they came back to win the final three. The turnaround didn’t seem evident in the next five games, as they went 2-3 against the Indians and Orioles, but following the loss in Baltimore they rattled off eight straight wins in which they scored 66 runs. Since then they have split a series at Tampa Bay, won two out of three against Cleveland, and, after last night’s 12-6 drubbing, have reclaimed first place by defeating the White Sox.
The Twins 19-10 record in Morneau’s absence might not seem particularly torrid, but it does outpace their season record by a decent margin. After the loss on July 7 they had a .536 win percentage, so they’ve won more since then. Even crazier, after the initial three losses they’ve gone 19-7, a .731 win percentage. It’s not quite the .810 win percentage of their final 21 games in 2009, but it has been enough for them to retake sole possession of first place in the Central for the first time since July 2.
While the typical talk radio reaction might involving lamenting Morneau’s return — they’re better without him, just look at the standings! — clearly it will be a nice boost for the team. Michael Cuddyer filled in admirably at first for a while, producing his best month of the year, but his bat has again tapered. But even when Cuddyer was hot he was no match for Morneau’s production. Few players in baseball are.
The Twins have made a nice run, and with one more win in the next two days against Chicago they’ll be set up well as they return home for nine games. Chances are we’ll see him back in the lineup some time during that stretch. That should scare other teams, particularly the White Sox (whom the Twins will face in another three-game series starting next Tuesday). If the Twins are playing this well without Morneau’s bat, imagine how hot they can get once her returns.