A Tuesday notes column, with analysis and reporting on the Twins, Vikings and Gophers.
The Twins have been surprising both supporters and critics all season. They could do more of that tonight in their American League Wild Card game against the Yankees in New York.
While fans and oddsmakers understandably dwell on the Yankees superior overall personnel, few will argue the underdog can win in a one-game playoff to determine who advances in the postseason. For that to happen tonight, the Twins most probable path to victory is a dominant performance by starting pitcher Ervin Santana.
Close to ideal will be six or seven innings from Santana, with him yielding a run or two at most. Twins hitters need to produce at least a few runs in the game’s early or middle innings. What Minnesota wants to avoid is playing from behind and facing the Yankees superb bullpen.
Look for the Twins to strategically be prepared. This season it seems like the organization has improved its advance scouting including the use of metrics. Maybe that hasn’t translated into more victories during the regular season against the Yankees (New York was 4-2 versus Minnesota) but it could pay off tonight. There are so many subtleties in baseball that might impact the outcome of a game. Things like how to position fielders, or strategic pitching to a batter with two strikes.
This Twins team has told the baseball world all season “don’t sleep on us.” Critics buried them before the season started and during the summer when the club’s decision makers dumped All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler on July 31. If there was a Minnesota postseason bandwagon back then it was pretty empty, but the last two months of the season the Twins played some of their best baseball.
During the month of August the Twins were 20-10 and hit .280 as a team. The overall ERA was 3.78. The club had some big wins in September too but was 0-3 against the Yankees. Last Sunday the Twins finished a turnaround year where they won 26 games more, and lost 26 fewer, than in 2016.
The Twins made believers out of their fans and media. Whatever happens tonight is another positive in a successful year. And if you’re looking for a good omen consider this, the 1987 World Series champion Twins went 85-77 during the regular season, just like the 2017 club.
Mike Zimmer is in his fourth season as head coach of the Vikings and the ultimate goal is to play in next February’s Minneapolis Super Bowl. The odds are against that happening because of injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook that are limiting the Vikings offense, but it would be ironic if Zimmer could win the Super Bowl like his mentor Bill Parcells did in his fourth season as Giants head coach.
The Giants won the 1986 Super Bowl, defeating the Broncos. Later when Parcells was coaching the Cowboys, Zimmer was his defensive coordinator. He worked four seasons for Parcells who usually texts the Vikings head coach after games.
“I have a book…of things he told me to remember as a head coach,” Zimmer said. “He talked a lot about field position. He talked about doing your job the right way, preparation and making players accountable and things like that.”
The Vikings are 2-2 after four games and their record characterizes the parity of the NFL. After four weeks the 4-0 Chiefs are the league’s only undefeated team. The opportunities most immediately ahead for the Vikings are winning in Chicago next Monday night against an inferior 1-3 Bears team, and then playing consecutive home games against the Packers and Ravens before visiting London and facing one of the league’s worst teams, the Browns.
No definitive news on whether Bradford’s troublesome knee allows him to play against the Bears after missing the last three games. Bradford excels under pressure from defenses, even setting an NFL single season record for completion percentage (71.6) last season despite playing behind a leaky offensive line. Profootballfocus.com reports that backup Case Keenum was “4-of-11 for 63 yards while under pressure” in Minnesota’s 14-7 loss to the Lions last Sunday.
Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant told Sports Headliners yesterday that Benny Sapp III, who is out for the season because of meniscus surgery on his left knee, should be recovered by late this year, but not in time to play for the Eagles. Sapp, who has also had two ACL surgeries on the same knee, is verbally committed to the Gophers as part of their 2018 recruiting class.
The loss of Sapp, a playmaker at cornerback and receiver for Grant, is unfortunate but the 5-0 Eagles could still win the 6A state title. Among their interesting standouts is running back Solo Falaniko who rushed for 187 yards last week against Maple Grove. Falaniko missed practice time this summer when he returned to his native Samoa after the death of his grandfather.
The Gophers’ fragile path to enough wins for bowl eligibility took a hit with their loss to Maryland last Saturday. Minnesota, 3-1 and 0-1 in Big Ten games, probably can’t withstand another defeat this Saturday in a winnable game against Purdue. Here is how Sports Headliners ranks the Gophers, Boilermakers and the other 12 Big Ten football teams starting with the West Division:
1.Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0). Badgers are good but are playing Charmin-soft nonconference and league schedules.
2. Iowa (3-2, 0-2). Hawkeyes have elite defense but struggle to score against quality opponents.
3. Nebraska (3-2, 2-0). Unpredictable Cornhuskers will answer more questions at home Saturday against Wisconsin.
4. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1). The Wildcats have gone from West Division title dark horse to the Big Ten’s most disappointing team but don’t discount the possibility of a mid-season comeback.
5. Purdue (2-2, 0-1). The best new coach in the Big Ten might be Purdue’s Jeff Brohm who took over a horrible program and has impressed in losses to nationally ranked Louisville and Michigan.
6. Minnesota (3-1, 0-1). Yup, P.J. Fleck, maybe not Brohm, could prove to be the league’s best newcomer in 2017, and he can boost his resume with a win Saturday at Purdue.
7. Illinois (2-2, 0-1). Year two in the Lovie Smith coaching experiment and he receives no vote of confidence from this keyboard.
1.Michigan (4-0, 1-0). It’s Harbaugh time in Ann Arbor, with the Wolverines probably winning their first conference title under “coach Khaki” this fall.
2. Ohio State (4-1, 2-0). Yes, the Buckeyes are loaded with talent but lost a few too many players to the NFL last spring.
3. Penn State (5-0, 2-0). Defending Big Ten champs get upset at Northwestern on Saturday. (Maybe).
4. Michigan State (3-1, 1-0). The college football world knew the Spartans and feisty coach Mak Dantonio weren’t going to have another 3-9 season.
5. Maryland (3-1, 1-0)). The Terps have an athletic roster and road wins at Texas and Minnesota.
6. Indiana (2-2, 0-2). IU used to be all about offense, and now the strength is more on defense, but Hoosiers still don’t have the balance and personnel to contend in the East.
7. Rutgers (1-4, 0-2). Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill coached in the press box for the first time last Saturday but the hapless Scarlet Knights lost 56-0 to Buckeyes.
Paul Molitor will soon know if the Twins want him back as manager. If the decision is no, the news will be received with a lot of criticism and cussing from fans and media—creating the most negative response about a Twins manager change since Billy Martin was fired following the 1969 season.
Molitor is among the favorites to win the American League Manager of the Year award because he has helped his team to the postseason after the 2016 Twins were among baseball’s worst clubs with a 59-103 record. He and his staff showed their collective baseball IQ’s in guiding a group most baseball experts didn’t think had any chance of making the postseason and couldn’t even finish with a near .500 record.
Molitor and staff almost constantly, out of necessity, shuffled the pitching staff while showing patience with starters, relievers and also position players. Their leadership contributed to a team characterized by its will and perseverance. The Twins go into the final day of the regular season today with an 84-77 record and a Wild Card position entitling them to a one-game playoff on Tuesday night against the Yankees in New York.
Yet Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the organization’s top baseball decision makers who joined the organization last fall, are choosing to wait until later this month to decide Molitor’s fate. The 61-year-old Molitor, who also led the Twins to surprising success in 2015 with an 83-79 record, has likely been bothered by the situation regarding his future, but publicly he has not complained.
The prevailing attitude among fans and media is Molitor has accomplished too much for Falvey and Levine to not renew the Minnesota native, who is the only active MLB manager who made the Hall of Fame as a player. It may be that Falvey and Levine needed to see this kind of work by Molitor in 2017 to retain him. Also, new leadership often wants “their own guy.”
Falvey and Levine have already made changes in the organization, letting go scouts and minor league manager Doug Mientkiewicz, a popular former Twins player and leader. Such moves have contributed to the anxiety of whether Molitor, a long time local hero dating back to his days at Cretin-Derham Hall and with the Gophers, returns as manager in 2018.
Dave Mona has followed the Twins since the franchise moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Washington D.C. in 1961. The WCCO Radio talk show host has, of course, wondered about Molitor’s future.
“At one time I was 50-50 but I am more like 90-10 right now that I think he will be back,” Mona told Sports Headliners. “There remains the chance that he won’t. It’s not a popularity contest. Obviously there was something about Doug Mientkiewicz that the new management didn’t see was consistent with the way they want to go.
“Then there have been other changes in the organization, (and) there is more rumored. These guys (Falvey and Levine) certainly have the option, without management interference, to go whatever direction they think is best for the long-term interest for the Twins.”
A decision not to retain Molitor will stir up controversy this fall and next winter. Such an announcement will not only create bad feelings among fans and media, but could cost the organization ticket sales, and impact business-to-business relationships and revenues.
The negativity, though, would diminish with time as spring training approached. If the Twins qualify for the postseason again next year, the anger and hurt over a Molitor dismissal could be all but forgotten.
Certainly the decision to not renew Molitor wouldn’t create the toxic results of the Martin termination. Martin, who had a fiery and highly publicized career as a player with the Yankees, quickly became a Minnesota fan favorite when he joined the Twins as a coach on the 1965 team that won the American League pennant.
Martin got his first MLB managing job in 1969 when the Twins hired him, and it was a move applauded by Minnesota fans. He took over a club that was 79-83 the previous season but the cocky and bold Martin was going to will and strategize the Twins to better results.
Martin led the Twins to a 97-65 record and his team won the newly formed American League West Division. Along the way he delighted fans but also alienated people including front office executive Howard Fox, a close confidant of owner Calvin Griffith.
Mona had a closer look at the Twins soap opera than most because he was the Twins beat writer for the Minneapolis Tribune. “Billy and Howard just got to the point they couldn’t even be in the same bus together,” Mona said. “The hostility between the two of them was just palpable.”
The Twins were swept in a five-game American League championship series by the Orioles. Mona recalled Griffith being irritated with Martin’s choice of a Twins starter in the series. It was probably part of a long list of grievances held by the Twins owner, who could be cranky just like Martin. The postseason decision was made to fire Martin.
Griffith didn’t anticipate the firestorm of criticism from the move. “They totally misjudged the affection that the fans had for Martin,” Mona said. “There was something in him that resonated with fans and I think he cultivated that. When they (ownership) ignored that I think fans took it personally, and felt it was a shot at them because they had made it known that they supported Billy.”
New Twins manager Bill Rigney led the Twins to a 98-64 record and another division title in 1970. The Orioles again took care of the Twins in the playoffs, winning 3-0. Twins home attendance fell by almost 90,000 to 1,261,887 in 1970, and only two more times before 1984 did annual totals exceed 1 million fans.
The Twins players who won those division titles in 1969 and 1970 deteriorated and the farm system was failing. Griffith’s teams of the 1970s were mediocre. A lot of fans remained bitter for years over the firing of Martin who ranks with the franchise’s best managers ever, a list that begins with two-time World Series winner Tom Kelly.
Molitor may not belong in that company yet, but the Twins don’t need to cut his career short in 2017. If they do, it will be the most controversial manager termination since 1969.
More than 35 players from Minnesota’s 1967 Big Ten championship football team will be in Minneapolis Friday and Saturday to celebrate their 50th anniversary. That was the last Gopher football team to win the conference title and new head coach P.J. Fleck values the link to the past.
“I think it’s incredibly important,” Fleck said Tuesday. “We talked to them (his players)…about embracing your past to create your future. We want to bring the championships back to Minnesota.
“That doesn’t happen overnight. I said that from day one in my press conference, and every time I’ve talked. …But the one thing I’ll say is, we want to make sure, when the 1967 team watches our game (Saturday), they’re inspired. It brings them back to their day.”
Fleck and some players will attend a reception for the 1967 alums on Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium. Lockers at the stadium will temporarily have nameplates with names of the ex-Gophers and a gift in each space.
Prior to Saturday’s 11 a.m. home game against Maryland the ’67 champions will hear Fleck’s pregame speech. Then between the first and second quarters the ’67 group will be recognized on the field.
Minnesota quarterback Conor Rhoda said he and teammates are grateful to have the legacy players back in town. The 3-0 Gophers, going into their opening Big Ten game against the 2-1 Terps, want to show their elders how much they’ve accomplished in the last eight months.
“Hopefully, we’re able to do that Saturday and be able to show them that this program has taken the steps to get back to how it was in the ‘60s when they won the championships,” Rhoda said.
The 1967 group was the last of coach Murray Warmath’s championship teams from that decade. He has passed away and so has most of his staff, although former assistant Mike Reid will attend the reunion. Deceased players include Mike Condo, Ron Kamzelski, Charlie Sanders and John Williams.
Fleck has travelled to high school games in the metro area via helicopter. Rhoda said the expense of using a helicopter sends a message. “For those kids that he was out recruiting it would show how important they are to him and how badly he wants them,” Rhoda said.
Fleck said a helicopter allows him to use his time efficiently. He not only wants to see players but engage with coaches and fans at high school games. “The more places we can see, the more benefit we have,” he said.
Rhoda talking about second team quarterback Seth Green, a redshirt freshman who so far has minimal college game experience: “He’s got all the skills in the world.”
It would be interesting if either Iowa or Wisconsin tries to hire popular former Gophers linebackers coach Mike Sherels. He isn’t coaching now but has a great reputation in the state of Minnesota where both the Hawkeyes and Badgers recruit.
The Vikings and Lynx games were both televised in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market last Sunday afternoon. How did TV audiences in the 18-plus category compare? The Vikings telecast averaged 665,500 viewers, the Lynx 40,700.
Profootballfocus.com gave third-year cornerback Trae Waynes the fifth highest grade among Vikings after last Sunday’s win against the Bucs. The former 2015 first round draft choice has been known for his inconsistency.
“Trae seems to be getting better all the time,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think he’s starting to develop more confidence. There’s still things he needs to work on, but he’s got such great athletic ability that he just needs to continue to use it. Sometimes he overthinks a little bit—just go out and play.”
Zimmer, known for his defensive coaching, can appreciate the seven interceptions the Lions have in three games. “They do a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “They play tight in coverage. They are very well coached scheme-wise—fundamentally sound and they are around the football so they end up getting a lot of picks.”
The Lions and Vikings are both 2-1, and Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium is probably anyone’s guess as to the winner. The Lions won both games last season.
Despite starting quarterback Sam Bradford missing two games, the Vikings have the third most passing yards through three games in franchise history. They have 882 yards, compared with 982 in 2004 and 988 in 1981.
After last Saturday’s “Holy Grail” game won by St. Thomas, the D3football.com national rankings have the Tommies No. 3 and Saint John’s ninth.
The Twins, who play their final regular season game on Sunday, have four players with 20 home runs or more. If Max Kepler hits one more home run to total 20 he will make the 2017 season only the third time in club history five players have reached that level. Brian Dozier (33), Miguel Sano (28), Eddie Rosario (27) and Eduardo Escobar (20) are the 2017 home run leaders.
Gophers sophomore basketball forward Eric Curry, who had successful reconstructive knee surgery September 20, is on crutches and attending classes, but will miss the upcoming season.
The 35 players expected at Big Ten Media Day October 19 at Madison Square Garden in New York will include Gopher center Reggie Lynch and guard Nate Mason. Lynch was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, while Mason was All-Big Ten.
Condolences to Gophers center and Norway native Matz Stockman, the Louisville transfer, who lost his father Eirik last summer. Stockman, who is redshirting this season, returned home to Norway for awhile because of his father’s death.
Athlon’s college basketball magazine ranks Rochester John Marshall’s Matthew Hurt the No. 5 prep player nationally in the class of 2019. Because his brother Michael is already on the team, the Gophers might be favorably positioned to land Matthew.
Kevin Burleson, who played guard for the Gophers from 1999-2003, is an assistant coach for the NBA Rockets.
Mike Hastings is among the best coaches in men’s college hockey so it wasn’t surprising this week when both a coaches poll and media poll ranked his Minnesota State team most likely to win the WCHA’s regular season championship in 2018. His teams have won 122 games, the fourth most nationally, since he took over the program for the 2012-13 season. Bemidji State was voted No. 2 in the polls.
The WCHA offices are based in the Twin Cities and the men’s administration is led by commissioner Bill Robertson, a former executive with the NHL Wild.