Even the loyalest of Twins’ fans could hardly have expected this. With 30 games to go in the 2019 regular season, Minnesota is 30 games over .500. That’s both symmetrical and surprising, considering the team has a first-year manager, a relatively new front office and more errors than all but three major league teams.
Home runs can cure a number of ills, and this year the Twins’ turnaround has been nothing short of amazing. After blasting a relatively mundane 166 long balls last year, the club is a sure bet to destroy both team and MLB records by season’s end.
Wednesday night in another win in Chicago, Jonathan Schoop became the seventh Twin to reach the 20-homer mark. That ties a major league record that will almost certainly be bested, since shortstop Jorge Polanco sits at 19 with a month to go. Even Marwin Gonzalez has an outside shot, needing five more to join the group.
Overall, Minnesota has mashed 258 home runs this year. Predictably, the New York Yankees hold the all-time record with 267, set just last season. Yet, that number is also a cinch to disappear with the Twins averaging almost two per game.
Schoop, Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron are newcomers, but five of the select sluggers were here last season: Polanco, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver.
Juiced baseballs, stronger athletes and more attention to “launch angles” are among the possible reasons for the surge. Regardless of the theory you might subscribe to, what the Twins have done this season has made a relatively wet and cool summer one of the most memorable ever for Upper Midwest baseball fans.
So now it’s time to find out how this story ends. Watching baseballs fly out of Target Field with regularity has been exciting, but for a success-starved fan base, a Central Division title and a post-season berth are still higher on the priority list.
Once cruising along with a lead of 11½ games in June, the Twins took a serious punch from Cleveland a couple of weeks ago before steadying the ship as we head down the stretch. Now up 3½ with 30 to go, this promises to either end with October baseball or one of the biggest collapses since the classic 1951 Bobby Thompson tater helped the New York Giants catch and pass the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Here are my five “musts” for Minnesota to finish this special season in style:
1. Give Jose Berrios enough time off to rescue his tired arm. The Twins will be decided underdogs against either Houston or New York, should they qualify for the playoffs. But Berrios represents Minnesota’s best chance to compete as a starter in a short series. Even at the risk of losing their lead to the Indians, the Twins need to get him right. The right-hander hasn’t won a game since July and his ERA in August is an ugly 8.14.
2. Keep the bullpen fresh. When the Twins were at their most vulnerable after the All-Star break, the relievers appeared overworked. Even closer Taylor Rogers looked human against good clubs like New York, Oakland and Cleveland. Recently, their starters (other than Berrios) have been going deeper in games. That’s allowed newly acquired Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson to be more effective. It’s also helped sometimes struggling Tyler Duffey and Trevor May to contribute, too.
3. Deliver a decent dozen. Next week the Twins face a crucial stretch of 12 games with Boston, Washington and Cleveland. The first two are desperately fighting to stay in the playoff hunt in their respective divisions. Expect to see the Red Sox at their best, since the World Champs already have a power-packed lineup and will now add pitching depth when rosters are expanded in September. The Nationals have one of the top rotations in the National League, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Even at Target Field, that series won’t be easy. Finally, a home-and-home series of six games with Cleveland is sandwiched in between. Yes, the Tribe has lost Jose Ramirez for the season and ace Corey Kluber continues to face setbacks in his road to recovery from a broken arm. But this represents their last shot at catching the Twins, who already have lost seven of 13 to the defending AL Central champs. By mid-September, we should know much more about Minnesota’s chances and at least a split of these 12 is probably a must.
4. Beat up on the bad teams. The other 18 games feature four with the White Sox and seven apiece with Kansas City and Detroit. Cleveland got back in the race by clobbering these foes. Now the Twins must do the same. Yes, on paper, that sounds like easy feasting. But Rocco Baldelli’s boys have already demonstrated that a lapse in pitching and defense, can still spell trouble, regardless of the opponent. Take care of business and the champagne should be flowing.
5. Keep leaving the yard. Nothing is more demoralizing to an opponent than watching this Twins’ team bash the baseball up and down the lineup. If you’ve been watching at all this season, you’ve probably noticed the head-shaking and dirt-kicking on the mound when the “Bomba Squad” does its damage. Serviceable pitching notwithstanding, intimidation will still be Minnesota’s greatest weapon this fall because all of the post-season contenders have already had a taste of their power.
While I’d love to add a sixth item to this list, I’m growing more convinced that Byron Buxton’s return to the lineup will be limited, if at all. There is no doubt that a healthy Buxton in center field would add greatly to a defense in strong need of improvement. But given his fragile history and the recent news of more setbacks when he swings the bat, the speedster’s shoulder just might not be ready anytime soon.
Had you asked me at the beginning of the month if this team would survive the Cleveland comeback, I’d admittedly have been skeptical. But watching the swagger slowly return recently, has me increasingly more optimistic.
If I’ve learned two things about the Twins this summer, it’s these: Minnesota’s lineup is legit. They also have shown a remarkable tenacity to never give up, despite the score. I’m just not sure they have enough pitching to beat the best.
Three hundred home runs? Absolutely!
One hundred victories? Certainly within reach.
A deep run in the post-season? Unlikely.
Then again, that ’87 team only won 85 games and somehow found a way. And a guy named Morris didn’t even need a bullpen to put us over the top in ’91.
This time, we may just need a home run or two to get the job done. Every inning or so.