ANAHEIM, California – June already, the Minnesota Twins are talking baseball, not just the dreary parts of trying-to-be-relevant baseball, but the promise of summer and the hopefulness they feel and, hey, first place is first place, and they’re not going to apologize for that.
They’d arrived the night before having been thoroughly shellacked for a few days by the Houston Astros, and while nobody enjoyed that very much, and nobody’s exactly making excuses, the worst team in baseball this summer is going to be whichever one is playing the Houston Astros. So they moved on, duct-taped up the bullpen, straightened their caps and scored three runs in the ninth inning to beat the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night.
The Twins aren’t great. They might not even be good for much longer. Time – and fastball command, maybe a few home wins – will tell. They are, however, very good in some places, competent in others, and as long as they can keep that up and as long as the AL Central continues to be kind, goofier things have happened.
The world won’t expect perfect from them, even as expectations wander toward something at least presentable. This remains, after all, the heart of a team that lost 103 ballgames last season, when an oh-and-nine start barrel-rolled into 11-34 and eventually, relentlessly, into the first pick in the upcoming draft. Now, on the first day of June, 27-23 is cause for a few smiles over a thin blanket of optimism.
“I know we’re coming off a pretty good clunker,” said Chris Gimenez, the backup catcher and clubhouse old soul, of the Houston series. “But, if we can maintain a goal of playing a game over .500 every month, we’re going to be in the thick of it when the time comes.”
The Twins were 12-11 in April, 14-12 in May and, as of Friday morning, 1-0 in June.
Sure, he said, somebody’s going to have to win the division and wild-card spots, but the Twins would be better off keeping the goals small. Anything beyond today, a little at a time, he added, “Things can spin out really quickly that way.”
Baby steps, man. Win a few series. Keep it up on the road, if need be, where they have won 15 of 20 games. Get the ball back to Ervin Santana, so far hanging with Dallas Keuchel as the most effective starter in the American League. Ride the big fella, Miguel Sano, on offense. Pull for the 23-year-old right-hander, Jose Berrios, who through four starts has left that 8 ERA in 2016, where it belongs. And go catch the ball, which they do as well as anyone, which they’re going to have to do if the rotation is going to run thin at the end, the bullpen is going to be combustible, and if two months of competence isn’t going to get washed away in a torrent of balls in play and baserunners.
The balance is delicate and not impossible. There are, perhaps, two or three very good teams in the AL. That leaves room for the overachiever, the grinding team that has a couple prospects grow up quicker than expected, that does something smart (or lucky) at the trading deadline, that avoids the catastrophic injury, that steers clear of the oh-and-9s and 11-34s. May as well be the Twins, right? Maybe?
“This year, everything’s changed,” said Santana. “It’s different and it feels great, especially when we’re winning.”
Some portion of that is due to Santana, who through 11 starts has a 1.75 ERA, a 0.844 WHIP and two shutouts – a one-hitter against the Chicago White Sox and a two-hitter in Baltimore. He says that’s the result of his usual preparation, going back to the offseason miles on the beaches near San Cristobal, that he pitches the same every year and what changes are the results. He then admitted he’s liked his changeup better recently, and Gimenez suggested the slider is angrier. Regardless, if Santana can pop a career year at 34 years old, one of two outcomes could follow – the Twins hang with the Cleveland Indians or Santana brings a good player or two come midsummer. Meantime, his 140 career wins rank 10th among active pitchers, which came as a surprise to him, and he’s a good four months from passing Bronson Arroyo (148) and Jered Weaver (150).
“Means I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “And doing a good job. … The confidence is always there. Sometimes you don’t have the same type of energy. This year’s been working good for me, and for our team, too.”
Then, too, Berrios resurfaced on May 13 with a narrower focus, a better command of the strike zone and the same live arm. He won his first three starts, twice pitching into the eighth inning, not unimportant if the Twins are going to rest/avoid their bullpen.
A year ago, Santana said, he sensed Berrios bowed to the reputations of big-league hitters. He said he thought Berrios concerned himself with the hitter before him, but also the hitter on deck and the hitter after that, and pitched to avoid the ugly inning, which brought only ugly innings.
“I was too focused on them,” Berrios said with a nod. “I gave them too much credit for who they are. Now I remember who I am.”
The same might be said for the Twins anymore. They probably don’t score enough runs. They probably give up too many at times. But that was yesterday. Like 103 losses are. Like an 8 ERA is. Today, they’re in first place. Today is something different. No apologies.
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