The advent of divisional play had been good for Minnesota. When the American League split into an East and West in 1969, the Twins captured the inaugural AL West crown. That was under the guidance of Billy Martin. After a falling out with the front office, Martin was fired. Bill Rigney stepped in as the new manager and the end result of the same. The 1970 Minnesota Twins won another AL West title.
Jim Perry was the ace of the staff. In an era when starting pitchers regularly worked every fourth game, Perry did a complete workload of forty starts. He won 24 games with a 3.04 ERA and, in a close vote, brought home the American League Cy Young Award.
Perry was backed up in the rotation by Jim Kaat, who made 34 starts and mixed in 11 more relief appearances, posting a 3.56 ERA. Bert Blyleven, a future Hall of Famer, was just getting started at the age of 19, and he won 10 games with a 3.18 ERA. Luis Tiant made 17 starts and finished with an ERA of 3.40. Bill Zepp pulled equal time between the rotation and the pen and his ERA was 3.22
The role of closer was very much in its infancy, but another 34-year-old arm, Ron Perranoski, mastered it in Minnesota. He saved 34 games and his ERA was a sharp 2.43. Stan Williams was even better in middle relief, working 113 innings, winning ten games and finishing with a dazzling ERA of 1.99.
All in all, the Twins staff, with no weaknesses at any spot, produced the second-best composite ERA in the American League.
Minnesota’s everyday lineup was anchored by the great Harmon Killebrew. One of the great power hitters of his era, Killebrew posted a stat line of .411 on-base percentage/.546 slugging percentage. The third baseman finished third in the AL MVP voting and was the third excellent 34-year-old on these 1970 Twins.
Tony Oliva played rightfield and his stat line was .364/.514. Cesar Tovar was in centerfield and he hit leadoff, finishing with a 356 OBP and 30 stolen bases. Brant Alyea got part-time work in the outfield and had a stat line of .366/.531. And a kid named Rod Carew played 51 games at different infield spots and racked up a .407/.524 stat line .
There were a number of weaknesses in the Twins’ lineup. But with Tovar setting the table, Killebrew and Oliva cleaning it up, and Alyea and Carew chipping in, Minnesota still finished third in the 12-team American League for runs scored.
The Twins came out strong with a 10-4 start including a series win in Oakland, where the A’s were a contender. They won two of three in Baltimore, the defending American League pennant winner. By Memorial Day, Minnesota was 26-12. They held a narrow half-game lead on the California Angels and were up six games on Oakland.
During the first part of the summer, the Twins continued to play consistent baseball and gradually nudged their lead on the Angels out to four games. The final week of the first half would be out west, with series in Oakland and Anaheim.
Minnesota took two of three in Oakland. A great pitching performance from Zepp keyed one win and five shutout innings in relief from Williams led the way in the other. On Thursday, the road trip continued against the Angels. Light-hitting shortstop Leo Cardenas won the opener when he broke a 2-2 tie in the ninth with a two-run homer. After Kaat took a hard-luck 2-1 loss on Friday, Cardenas came through again on Saturday. A three-hit night keyed a 5-2 win.
Even though the Twins lost on Sunday, they had split the four-game set on the road, gone 4-3 for the week and reached the All-Star break in control of the AL West. Their record was 54-28 and the margins were plus-5 on California and up 9 ½ on Oakland.
The late summer saw some sluggish play. Minnesota went 24-27 in the 51 games leading up to Labor Day weekend. California chopped the lead down to three games and the Twins were heading back to Anaheim for a big series on the holiday weekend.
Oliva stepped up in Friday night’s opener, ripping four hits. Blyleven and Perranoski combined on a shutout and a 4-0 win. On Saturday, Tovar knocked out three hits, Oliva picked him up with three RBIs and Minnesota won 4-3. Tovar kept it right on going into Sunday, with two hits, three RBIs of his own and a home run. The 3-1 win completed the sweep. Minnesota was back to a six-game lead over both California and Oakland.
The A’s got their chance at cutting into the lead when they came to old Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis on September 9. Perry opened the series on Wednesday night by winning #22 in a 3-1 decision. Thursday was a twilight doubleheader, an old-school concept where the first game was played around 5:30 PM, there was just a twenty-minute break between games and one ticket got you in for both.
Oakland sent the young Catfish Hunter to the mound. Tovar led the way in roughing up the future Hall of Famer, with three hits and the Twins won 6-1. Then Oliva got it rolling in the nightcap with an early home run. Kaat cruised through seven good innings and a 7-2 win completed another sweep.
Minnesota was riding high, up 8 ½ on the A’s and 10 on the Angels. The AL West race was all but over. A couple weeks later, the Twins were making the return trip to Oakland with a chance to clinch. A 5-3 win was sealed when Perranoski induced a groundball to short that Cardenas flipped to second baseman Danny Thompson for the forceout. The party could start for the second straight year. Minnesota finished the season with a record of 98-64.
For the second straight year, the party ended in the American League Championship Series. The Twins rematched with the Orioles, but Baltimore was just too good. The Birds had won 108 games and were hungry to atone for an upset loss in the 1969 World Series. Minnesota was swept out of the ALCS, as Baltimore went on to win it all.
1970 was still a tremendous year, but it also signaled a temporary end to the success. Minnesota slipped under .500 in 1971, as Oakland became ascendant and dominated the division for the early part of the decade. The Twins did not make a serious run at first place until 1984. Their next division title came in 1987, the year they finally won the franchise’s first World Series crown.