Having toiled around the .500 mark all season, the Twins were in the midst of another tough streak -- losing seven of 10 games -- when they were dealt what appeared to be a crushing blow. With three weeks remaining in the season, star slugger Justin Morneau's season was cut short by a stress fracture in his lower back.
But while the Twins' chances looked bleak as they sat 5 1/2 games back of the first-place Tigers with 20 to play, one person who kept reminding them that they weren't dead yet was manager Ron Gardenhire.
"We've teetered," Gardenhire said at that time. "'Are we in? Are we out?' But we're still in."
Gardenhire led his club on a 17-4 run to end the regular season and finish with an improbable AL Central title. And thanks to his team's late-season surge, which gave the Twins their fifth AL Central title in eight seasons, Gardenhire was once again considered a top contender for the American League Manager of the Year Award.
But while the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America appreciated another strong managing job by Gardenhire, he finished runner-up to another skipper for the honor -- yet again.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia won the award after leading the Angels to an AL West title amidst tragedy, following the April 9 death of pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed in an automobile crash. Scioscia received 15 of 28 first-place votes and a total of 106 points.
Gardenhire was second in the balloting, receiving six first-place votes for a total of 72 points. He was listed second on 12 ballots and third on six. Yankees manager Joe Girardi finished third in the balloting, earning a total of 34 points.
When reached Wednesday after the awards were announced, Gardenhire said the right man won the award."I can't even begin to think of how hard that was losing a player during ... a season like that, the tragedy with Nick," Gardenhire said of Scioscia. "For them to maintain and carry on with all the injuries they had to deal with, I mean he just had a heck of a year managing a baseball team. I've said all along I voted for him. To do what he did through some really tough circumstances, wow what a year." This season marks the second consecutive year that Gardenhire has finished runner-up in the AL Manager of the Year voting and the fifth time overall. He finished second in 2003, '04, '06 and '08 while taking third in the voting in '02, his first season as manager. The five second-place finishes are the most by an AL manager, although four-time Manager of the Year winner Tony La Russa holds the record for most second-place finishes. La Russa was second in the NL Manager of the Year balloting on Tuesday, marking his sixth time finishing runner-up.
"I think you have to be a tremendous manager to finish second five times in eight years," said Twins general manager Bill Smith. "I'd say [the 2009 season] is his best body of work, start to finish."Although the BBWAA's honor has eluded him, Gardenhire has been recognized by others for his tremendous work over the past eight seasons. Along with the Rangers' Buck Showalter, Gardenhire was named co-Manager of the Year by the Sporting News in 2004, and he was named AL Manager of the Year by Baseball America in 2008.
Last week, Gardenhire was named the 2009 Chuck Tanner Manager of the Year by the Pittsburgh Rotary Club. The award, which is in honor of the former Pirates manager, is voted upon by former players, executives and media members and is given to "the manager that best exemplified Chuck Tanner's managing and leadership qualities."
Gardenhire has certainly delivered his fair share of successful seasons while at the helm of the Twins, but the job he did in 2009 may have been his best work to date.
"I let other people decide that kind of stuff," Gardenhire said. "I'm proud of what this baseball team did. We had a lot of things not go our way. A lot of injuries, we used a lot of people from in the organization -- our kids from Triple-A. But no one ever quit. They really battled so I was proud of the team and my coaching staff. It was pretty fun."The Twins' late season run was good enough to overtake the Tigers, as the club forced a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome and outlasted Detroit in a thrilling 12-inning contest to earn another trip to the postseason. And others in the division took notice of Gardenhire's work.
"I think he should be Manager of the Year," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said in September. "He should. That guy was fighting with not too much ammunition. He did a tremendous job with that ballclub, day in and day out, to put the club in that position. That's amazing. It's something where he should feel proud."
Little went according to plan for the Twins in '09. Before he began putting up MVP-worthy numbers, catcher Joe Mauer missed the first month of the season with lower back inflammation. Plans to install Alexi Casilla full-time at second base fell through, and Gardenhire was forced to be creative with his infield. Third baseman Joe Crede's laundry list of bumps and bruises limited him to 90 games before season-ending back surgery in September. And injuries cost Minnesota three starting pitchers -- Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano -- who began the season in the rotation.
By the time Morneau's season came to an abrupt, early end in mid-September, there were very few pundits who believed the Twins could stay in the AL Central race. But Gardenhire, who won his 700th career game in late September, never let his players believe that sentiment.
"The challenge was to keep the players focused on the big picture," he said in late September. "We went so long battling around that .500, and every time you would get the good feeling, then you'd play a couple games in a row where you think, 'Here we are again.' So it was just a constant reminder to keep playing, and maybe we'll get on a run. That's what we were hoping."
That run finally did come, and while it might not have been enough to earn Gardenhire the Manager of the Year Award, it did result in perhaps his best managing job yet.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.