Twins’ Hunter at his best with something on the line
By Mike Berardino St. Paul Pioneer Press The last time Torii Hunter finished out a baseball season with the Twins, he had to summon every bit of his professionalism just to get through it. A 79-win Twins team in 2007 had no chance to catch either...
By Mike Berardino
St. Paul Pioneer Press
The last time Torii Hunter finished out a baseball season with the Twins, he had to summon every bit of his professionalism just to get through it.
A 79-win Twins team in 2007 had no chance to catch either the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central or the New York Yankees for what back then was the league’s only wild-card spot. Eliminated with 12 games remaining, those disappointing Twins had to slog through the most meaningless games Hunter has experienced in any of the past 15 seasons.
“That,” Hunter says, “was painful.”
Thanks to a remarkable career that has seen his teams reach the postseason eight times, the Twins’ 40-year-old right fielder has been subjected to just 42 meaningless games since the start of 2001. That’s an average of just three per season.
Some years his teams were able to kick back after clinching a postseason spot, but the games that follow postseason elimination are what we’re talking about here. Those provide a different sort of challenge, one which the surprising 2015 Twins seem intent on avoiding.
“I hate meaningless games,” Hunter says. “They mean nothing to me - by definition. I can’t play. I can’t perform. It hurts. Really, I don’t even want to play. I hate ‘em.”
His two-year stint with the Detroit Tigers included a pair of trips to the postseason, so you have to go back to 2012 and the close of a five-year run with the Los Angeles Angels to find Hunter’s last meaningless games.
A 27-14 push to the finish line fell short in 2012, even after Hunter and Albert Pujols had a heated altercation, according to reports, in the clubhouse during a team meeting in mid-August. Hunter’s final three games with the Angels, who low-balled him that winter before signing Josh Hamilton for $125 million, were meaningless.
There were nine meaningless games for the 2010 Angels, and two more in 2011, when Angels manager Mike Scioscia came up with a novel way to ease Hunter’s pain over those final two home games against the Texas Rangers.
“Sosh sat me down and let me manage,” Hunter says. “He let me write out the lineup and everything. It was so stupid. It was funny.”
Hunter’s first two years with the Angels, 2008-09, included postseason appearances, so if the Twins are able to grab the final wild-card spot it would make it three straight postseason trips in Hunter’s first year with a new organization.
“He’s responded over and above here the last few weeks,” Twins manager Paul Molitor says. “There were a lot of people concerned about how he might finish the season, given the way the first part of the second half began. It’s been fun to see. Guys are rallying behind him.”
Hunter continues to carry the strongest voice in an inexperienced Twins clubhouse, right down to hosting those Studio 48 dance parties and bringing in T-shirts that read “We Own Septober” for his teammates to wear.
Since emerging from a two-month downturn, however, he has been able to add much-needed production to the prodding.
In 46 games and 180 plate appearances from July 1 through Sept. 4, Hunter hit .159 with 43 strikeouts.
Since the Saturday night in Houston when the Twins trotted out Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Aaron Hicks in what Molitor termed their “outfield of the future,” Hunter has produced eight multi-hit games in his past 12 starts.
In his past 50 plate appearances, he has hit .409 with a 1.073 OPS, three home runs and 11 runs batted in.
“He’s backing it up with performance,” Molitor says, “getting big hits and really having some strong at-bats and playing good defense. We talk about experience, but he’s one guy for us that shows he knows how to stand up. As things get a little tighter, he still continues to play well.”
Even those nine meaningless games the Twins endured in 2005 come with an asterisk for Hunter, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury on July 29.
In 2001, Tom Kelly’s final year in the dugout and Hunter’s first taste of postseason contention, the Twins were eliminated with seven games to play. The end came with a 9-8 walkoff loss in Cleveland.
Current Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado took the loss after LaTroy Hawkins gave up a game-ending single to Travis Fryman. Hunter had given the Twins an 8-7 lead with a solo homer off John Rocker with two outs in the eighth.
“Just think about the teams that are out of it - nothing to go for,” Hunter says. “You can’t win the division or the wild card. Now you’re just playing because you’re out of it anyway.”
He is reminded of his old friends in Detroit, where the Twins play this weekend.
“I think they’re about to get to the point where it’s meaningless,” Hunter says. “Guys like (Ian) Kinsler, he’s always pumped up. I can’t imagine him going through that. For me, I’m a veteran guy. Some guys are trying to get a salary drive or whatever. I don’t need that. I want a ‘W.’ “
Hunter shakes his head and smiles.
“If I had meaningless games, I’d tell Mollie I couldn’t play,” he says, “because my mind would be gone.”
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