It’s been a lousy summer for fans of teams with lofty expectations. The Cardinals stink. The Yankees and Red Sox were major disappointments. And the Mets and Padres, who spent prodigiously in the off-season, couldn’t buy their way into the playoffs.
So what are we to make of the Twins, who, despite uneven hitting and an unreliable bullpen, lead the AL Central by a fair margin with three weeks to play?
Though Target Field attendance is up more than 2,000 a game over last season, when the Twins drew the fewest fans for a non-COVID year since the park opened in 2010, there’s dramatically less buzz in Twins Territory for this club than almost any other. Certainly much less than the 2019 Bomba Squad.
Why? Two numbers tell the story: 18, and 2002. The first represents the Twins’ MLB-record postseason losing streak, mostly to the Yankees. The second? That’s the last time the Twins won a playoff series. Since dispatching Oakland in the ’02 Division Series (remember Eddie Guardado’s ninth-inning tightrope act in Game 5?) they’re 0-9 in series or single-elimination wild card games. It’s enough to make anyone cranky and demoralized.
The bullpen’s late-inning struggles leave most Twins fans on edge. Many nights I heard audible groaning at Target Field when the Twins brought in Griffin Jax or Emilio Pagan. (Truth be told, I even heard some of that in my own living room.) The bullpen’s 26 losses aren’t close to the most in baseball – Oakland has 37 – but it’s still a big number, more than any other division leader.
It all reminds fans of too many late-inning meltdowns in postseason’s past. Juan Rincon’s “Nobody wants to be in my pants right now.” Alex Rodriguez’s home run off Joe Nathan. And on and on. They’ve seen this show. They know how it usually ends. And until the Twins break this ghastly streak, many want no part of any more pain.
If that’s you, you have my sympathy, and they’ll be no attempt to talk you out of it. I once covered a Red Sox team that lost 13 straight postseason games, from Bill Buckner through the legs in ‘86 up until the first AL Division Series in 1995. It took Pedro Martinez, the passage of time and a band of idiots to end the nonsense. Maybe Royce Lewis is ‘That Guy’ here. Or not. We’ll see.
So how did the Twins put themselves on the verge of the playoffs for the first time since 2020? Here’s what they did right, and wrong, with a final thought about whether they’ll break your heart again in October.
What went right
The starting rotation
Traditionally, the Twins organization develops more hitters than pitchers. Twins execs Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were hired in 2016 in part to try to balance that out. It hasn’t been easy, especially with starting pitching, though prospects Bailey Ober and Louis Varland showed promise in stretches.
At some point, Falvey and Levine realized their starter pipeline wasn’t moving fast enough. Losing the 2020 minor-league season to COVID-19 didn’t help. So they looked around other organizations for arms. Trades brought Joe Ryan from Tampa Bay, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle from Cincinnati, Chris Paddack from San Diego and Pablo Lopez from Miami, the latter for batting champion Luis Arraez.
The Mahle and Paddock deals were fiascos; both eventually needed Tommy John surgery. But Lopez, Ryan and Gray generally give the Twins a competent six innings most nights. That’s helpful for the Twins, since off days in the AL Division Series schedule mean clubs only need three starters.
“A lot gets made of developing internally,” Falvey said. “[The farm system], trades, free agency, there are three different avenues to get there. We’ve got to hit on all of them.
“We had a little a bit of a stall period there, it felt like in my mind, not only with our team but in the industry. COVID, 2020, no season. In 2021, it was really challenging coming back. We got a little bit off course with a few of our young pitchers. But we continue to try and develop a lot of the internal guys, and hopefully they’re developing at this level, too.”
The Twins acquired veterans Michael A. Taylor, Willi Castro, Kyle Farmer and Donovan Solano for depth in the off-season. All made significant contributions while helping the struggling offense manufacture runs.
With knee issues limiting Byron Buxton to full-time DH, Taylor (20 HRs with 13 stolen bases) excelled as the everyday centerfielder. Castro, taking advantage of new rules limiting pickoff throws to first, leads the Twins with 30 steals, the most since Ben Revere bagged 40 in 2012. (The entire Twins team had 38 last year.)
Solano, who tops the club with eight pinch hits, has been especially productive the last month or so (.371 his last 27 games). Farmer played all over the infield and batted .333 with runners in scoring position. Manager Rocco Baldelli trusts his bench so much he goes to it as early as the fifth inning, based on pitching matchups.
Castro and Taylor, along with the now-injured Nick Gordon, gave the Twins speed and bunting ability, dimensions they haven’t had in Baldelli’s time as manager. The Twins scored four runs on safety squeeze bunts between April 30 and July 15, two by Ryan Jeffers.
Taylor loves that style. He came up through the Washington Nationals organization, which emphasized bunting, base running and traditional baseball skills, not just home runs and launch angles. (Just-recalled outfielder Andrew Stevenson is another well-schooled Nationals farm product; he stole 44 bases in 49 attempts with Class AAA St. Paul.)
“It was part of our daily routine,” said Taylor, who has five bunt hits. “If we [took batting practice] on the field, we had a station where we were bunting. We used to have a machine going on the side near the on-deck circle. There was a group for base running, a group for bunting, a group for hitting, and so we’d rotate. And also for defense.
“I’m not even sure if they’re still doing it. I think the game has changed. There was a bigger emphasis on small ball maybe five-plus years ago. Now slugging and things like that have changed the game. Some teams don’t even believe in bunting or hitting behind runners.”
They should. Runs can be hard to come by in October, and every little bit helps.
Royce Lewis and the kids
Before a game late last year, Falvey made a rare appearance in the Twins clubhouse. About a half-a-dozen players milled around their lockers. Falvey greeted each one warmly, but only one got a hug – Royce Lewis, the overall No. 1 pick in Falvey’s first amateur draft with the Twins.
Baseball people talk about “presence,” an intangible that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see. Derek Jeter, whom I covered in New York, had a quiet confidence that lifted everyone around him. So does Lewis. Finally healthy after two ACL surgeries and an oblique strain, Lewis has been unstoppable since coming off the injured list Aug. 15, batting .304 with seven home runs.
Grand slams in back-to-back games, a feat done only by Ken Griffey Jr., gave Lewis four slams in his first 56 big-league games, the fastest to that mark in baseball history. Lewis leads a parade of promising young hitters (Matt Wallner, Edouard Julien, Alex Kirilloff) who expect to fight for everyday jobs in 2024.
What went wrong
Buxton and Correa
There’s a thing in baseball called “manufacturing” a swing. It happens when a player suffers a lower body injury and can’t shift his weight properly at the plate. Depending on the severity of the injury and the pain, on certain days it can render a player almost useless. But he plays because the team believes he’s still better at 75% than his backup at 100%.
Byron Buxton (right knee surgery) and Carlos Correa (left foot plantar fasciitis) have been trying to manufacture swings all season. That’s why Buxton is batting .207, while Correa has grounded into an MLB-leading 29 double plays.
On good days, Buxton can still rake (17 homers). But on bad days, he can’t load up on his back leg. So he compensates elsewhere, leading to hip and hamstring problems.
Most days, Correa is in such pain he simply won’t run hard when he’s certain to be out at first. (Watch him the next time he smacks a two-hopper to the shortstop.) But unlike Buxton, Correa still moves well enough laterally to excel defensively. And his throwing accuracy makes the Twins’ baffling, anyone-can-play-first-base strategy less of an issue.
Do we really have to go through this again?
Falvey and Levine failed to fortify the pen at the trade deadline. Now, look for the Twins to press Kenta Maeda, Dallas Keuchel and Varland into multi-inning middle relief duty in postseason as the bridge between the starters and hard-throwing closer Jhoan Duran. It better work, because we all know what hasn’t.
The bottom line
Sooner or later, the Twins will win another playoff game, and a series. When that will happen, I have no idea. If you want to wait to see it before gluing the pieces of your broken heart back together, you’ll get no argument from me. See you in October.