Dare we trust them?
Two months into the season, the Twins own the best record in baseball (37-18 as of Friday morning), a 9 1/2 game lead in the American League Central Division, and more home runs than any other club. In May alone, with two games remaining, they set franchise single-month records of 56 home runs and 117 extra base hits. The same fans who ripped the Twins for not pursuing big-name free agents last winter, who avoided the Target Field the first six weeks of the season like it was radioactive, are suddenly excited and buying tickets.
Saturday and Sunday games over Memorial Day weekend sold out at 39,000-plus, the first since Opening Day. Tuesday night, most of a crowd announced as 27,120 stuck around through the end of a 5-3 victory over Milwaukee, standing and cheering as shortstop Jorge Polanco caught a popup for the final out. Eddie Rosario’s two-run homer, his 17th — tying Harmon Killebrew in 1964 for the most by a Twin through 54 games — capped a decisive five-run seventh. It came too late to get lefty starter Devin Smeltzer, a pediatric cancer survivor, the win on a night he threw six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in his major-league debut.
Things are going so well for the Twins, and so unexpectedly, that it’s easy to believe this can go on all season.
You can’t go wrong if you adopt this Minnesota sports truism: Our women rock. Our men suck. Seems like our best women pros and collegians compete regularly for championships, while it’s been 28 years since the 1991 Twins won the last championship by a Minnesota men’s team in a major sport. (“Men’s” and “major” are the key terms here.)
The day the Twins finished their most recent homestand, the University of Minnesota women’s softball team boarded a flight for Oklahoma City and their first NCAA College World Series. The next day, the retooled, four-time WNBA champion Lynx routed defending champion Seattle (albeit without injured stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird) to go 2-0, suggesting a much more entertaining summer at the Target Center than previously thought.
Just three months ago the unsinkable Minnesota Whitecaps won the National Women’s Hockey League championship, selling out every game with Minnesotans up and down the lineup. And Gophers women’s hockey fell just short of its fifth NCAA title since 2012.
Meanwhile, our men’s teams disappoint, predictably.
Every fall Minnesota media types wave their purple pom-poms, overreacting to every Vikings victory, and every year the Vikings fall on their face. The Timberwolves can’t ever get it right. Same with the Wild. The Twins were fun those last few seasons at the Metrodome until the Yankees slammed the window on their hands every October. “No one wants to be in my pants right now,” said Twins reliever Juan Rincon, a memorable and unfortunate turn of phrase as he took responsibility for one epic collapse. Championships? That’s for other cities.
So how invested should Twins fans be in this club? Can they trust Bombasota, as Rosario calls this slugging lineup, to still be in the race in September? Or will this absurdly large lead slowly vanish as the season grinds on?
“They can believe what they want. It’s out of my control,” said right fielder Max Kepler.
“When I looked at the lineup before spring training, on the offensive side, I thought this team could do a lot of damage. Our pitchers, especially our starting pitchers, have come through big-time and done an outstanding job. Any team, it’s about how you grow together, build chemistry, and stay in the right frame of mind. And stay healthy, of course. We’ve done that so far. If we can keep doing this, the sky’s the limit.”
Certainly, hopeful signs abound. The longballs draw the most attention, but the starting pitching has been the biggest driver. Smeltzer’s scoreless debut gave Twins starters a sterling 2.76 ERA in May through games of Wednesday, with 16 quality starts in 27 outings.
Earned run average is often scoffed at these days, but consider: Overall, the starters ERA of 3.45 ranks third-lowest in the majors. Twins starters haven’t finished a season that high since tying for fourth in 2004 (4.08), or had an ERA below 4.00 since 2005 (3.93). As recently as 2016, the Twins ranked last in MLB for the third time in four years, at 5.39. The improvement reflects the input of new pitching coach Wes Johnson, a mechanics and analytics savant; assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner; and the analytics staff assembled by chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine.
Better starting pitching usually means less stress on the bullpen. In today’s MLB, a reliable bullpen is as vital as a working sump pump in a Minnesota basement. Through Wednesday, Twins relievers worked the second-fewest innings in MLB (165 1/3), one inning less than Washington and about 35 less than the major-league average. Previous Twins managers usually burned out their best relievers by now, so that’s significant.
Thursday night the Twins began a 10-game road trip to Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Detroit. They seem to be rolling. Every team hits a rough patch sooner or later, and how the Twins come out of their first, whenever it is, should tell us more about this club than what we’ve seen so far.
So trust them at your peril. And be ready for anything.