It’s fitting that the team from Minnesota, home of political red-headed stepchildren like Jesse Ventura (both of them!), Michelle Bachmann and Al Franken, are once again champions of the American League’s red-headed stepchild– the Central division! (See what I just did there?) And yet this year they’ll be doing so for the first time in their new, outdoor ballpark, Target Field.

Ahhh yes, who among us doesn’t get a little misty-eyed about great baseball traditions like peeling yourself off a bleacher seat in a frosty Minnesota mid-October while chowing down on some walleye on a stick?

And they say tradition is dead.

The Competition

While the Twins may be in new digs this year, their opponents will look awfully familiar. As we mentioned previously, the Yankees have bounced the Twins from the playoffs in three of their last four appearances, including a three-game ALDS sweep last year.

This time around, by virtue of being a division winner, the Twins have home-field advantage against the Wild Card-winning Yanks.

The Difference Maker

If I really wanted to I could just mail in this section by rambling on about the virtues of Twins catcher Joe Mauer, the sweet swinging All-Star and former MVP who, while not as good as he was last year, had a typically fantastic season at a physically demanding, premium position, leading the Twins to the playoffs despite missing their other MVP. But… um… have you seen Jim Thome’s numbers this year?

Forgive me, Parkes, for the cuss word, but: holy shit.

The old warhorse, after a brief sojourn in the NL as a pinch hitter for the Dodgers at the end of 2009, returned to the American League on a one-year $1.5-million deal to play DH, mostly against right-handers, and has been an absolute beast. He put up a .283/.412/.627/1.039 line, and his OPS+, according to Baseball Reference, was a staggering 178– which would have been only a single point behind AL leader Miguel Cabrera, had Thome had enough at-bats to qualify.

Sure, he had a fairly pedestrian .769 OPS against lefties, against whom he had fewer than 100 plate appearances. And if you’re into completely useless stats, his 59 RBIs could look a bit better. But at age 39– granted, as essentially a platoon player– he posted the second-highest OPS+ of what was already a Hall-of-Fame-bound career. He even hit two triples!

(FML Note: Thome made exactly the same amount this year as Blue Jays utility infielder John McDonald. More on him in a second.)

Injuries

The Twins’ season has been so marred by a pair of key injuries that it’s truly remarkable we’re even talking about them here in a playoff preview post (though… well… really, who did they have to beat to get here, the White Sox? The Tigers? Meh). What Twins fans would have hoped to be the worst injury news they’d hear all year hit before the season even began, as their outstanding closer Joe Nathan was shut down for the season in March, requiring Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

That would have been bad enough, but in Toronto in early July former MVP first baseman Justin Morneau was accidentally kneed in the head by John McDonald of the Blue Jays. He suffered a concussion, the symptoms of which he was still feeling on October 4th, when the Twins announced that, despite his initial hope that he could return to action for the final rounds, he would not be able to participate in the playoffs.

Fangraphs explained how, incredibly, his 5.3 WAR would place him ninth in the American League, despite having been out since about the All-Star break.

Strategies

Obviously any team that has overcome catastrophic injuries from two immense players of a roster that’s hardly as loaded as their first round opponents’ has done so employing some nifty strategy– and at the heart of the Twins’ strategic thinking is some remarkable consistency.

Manager Ron Gardenhire is in his ninth season at the helm of the club, and his nineteenth overall, having joined the Twins as their third base coach in 1991 under Tom Kelly.

Kelly, who resigned from the club after the 2001 season, had been there even earlier, taking over in 1987 and winning a pair of World Series championships.

For those of you who ran out of fingers to count on, this means that the Twins have employed only two managers over the last 23 years– a stunning feat for any modern sports franchise.

Summary

Seriously, how have the Twins possibly even made it this far?

I mean, after losing franchise cornerstones Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, and trading Matt Garza for Delmon Young (who, to be fair, actually was pretty good this year) a couple years back, then after seeing Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau go down with season-ending injuries? For them to actually be playoff brethren of the super-rich, perennially successful, storied New York Yankees? It boggles the mind.

Actually, it kind of reminds me of this other Twins story I heard once…