Halfway home, Twins in the driver’s seat
MINNEAPOLIS -- Kyle Gibson is not going to lie; he expected the Minnesota Twins to be good.
But this good?
The Twins crossed the mathematical halfway point of the season while in Chicago over the weekend. They were 52-29 at that point, very close to the best record in franchise history at the midway point. They now sit 53-30 with a healthy lead over the Indians in the American League Central.
So, did Gibson expect this?
“I think I could sit here and lie to you and say, ‘Yeah, I expected we were going to be 20-whatever games over .500,’ ” the Twins right-hander said. “You expect to be one of the best teams, but I don’t think anybody really expects a team to go from where we were last year and make the moves we did and then all of a sudden click.”
The Twins finished last season 78-84. Soon after, the front office let veteran manager Paul Molitor go and replaced him with first-timer Rocco Baldelli. In free agency, they supplement a promising core of players such as Jose Berrios, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano with veterans such as Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Martin Perez.
But just having the pieces in place doesn’t guarantee success. The core itself needed to improve. Chemistry and buy-in would be important. Players had to stay relatively healthy. Any number of things could hinder success.
“We’ve had a lot of people step up and do some really, really good things for us,” Baldelli said. “And watching guys grow and watching guys succeed, I think I can say this now even though I’ve only been doing this a short period of time, it’s probably the best part of the job.
Many of the players brought in — Cruz, Cron, Perez, Jonathan Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez and Blake Parker — had familiarity either with players on the current roster or each other. That, Gibson, pointed out, helped with the chemistry.
It was during spring training that Gibson, the longest-tenured Twins player at seven years, started noticing things really coming together. He was encouraged when the front office, after watching Sano go down with a heel laceration, went out and got the versatile Gonzalez, an integral part of Houston’s World Series winners in 2017.
“I think that showed that they had a lot of confidence in us because … a team is not going to go out and make those moves if they don’t think that the young guys are ready,” Gibson said.
And as long as they stayed relatively healthy and “pitched average,” Gibson figured, the Twins would be successful because of their lineup.
There have been bumps and bruises along the way, but with the exception of Sano’s 42-game absence to start the season the Twins haven’t yet run into an extra-prolonged injury. The pitching has been much better than average — the Twins’ combined earned-run average of 3.91 ranks fifth among MLB’s 30 teams — and the lineup has delivered as promised, leading the majors in with batting average (.270), home runs (157) and slugging percentage (.496), and ranking second in RBIs (456).
It hasn’t all been perfect. With injuries to key players such as Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza in June, the Twins have struggled a bit for the time this season. They’ve lost 7 of 13 heading into Tuesday night’s 9:07 p.m. first pitch at Oakland after losing 2 of 3 to the White Sox over the weekend in Chicago. And what was an 11½-game lead over Cleveland in the American League Central on June 2 is down to eight.
The Twins and the AL Central champs meet 13 more times this season, starting July 12-14 at Cleveland.
Still, The Twins still have not lost more than two games in a row, the only team that can make that claim this season. “I think we’ve been really consistent even (when we) struggle,” Cruz said. “We struggle one or two games and then we find a way to bounce back.”
The group, too, has bought into the changes made by Baldelli and his staff. It’s a laid-back environment with an emphasis on rest and recovery, which will take on added importance as the Twins charge toward the back half of the season.
“We’ve had our group come together very nicely and play and compete as individuals and do good things but come together as a group to win,” Baldelli said. “It’s been fun. Hopefully we can do something like this in the second half.”
The Twins are leading the American League Central in large part because of big improvements from several players. Here are five of note, although there are more:
Jorge Polanco, SS, 26 — A starter in the July 9 All-Star Game, Polanco’s .320 batting average is second in the American League behind Boston’s Rafael Devers’ .322. His first half last season? Suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
Max Kepler, RF, 27 — Kepler had his longest and worst major league season in 2018, hitting just .224 in 156 games with 58 RBIs, fewer than he managed in more games in each of the previous two. Right now, his 21 homers are a career high, and his 53 RBIs rank second on the roster behind Eddie Rosario.
Eddie Rosario, LF, 27 — Rosario has been a good player the past few years but has made the jump to team leader, setting the RBI pace with 60, only 18 off his career-high pace from 2017, and ranking second to Kepler with 20 HRs. On the IL with a sprained left ankle since June 26, he’s the early leader for team MVP.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP, 29 — A first-time all-star, Odorizzi has been the best pitcher on a top five staff, 10-3 with a 2.79 earned-run average. After a late spring start, he was 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA in 2018, his first season since being acquired from Tampa Bay.
Mitch Garver, C, 28 — After starting the season as backup to Jason Castro, Garver has become an equal part of a tandem, largely because of his bat: .284, 12 HRs, 32 RBIs and team-leading .972 OPS in 41 games. Before this year, he hit a combined .258 with a .734 OPS in parts of two MLB seasons.