KANSAS CITY -- Back in the spring and early summer, when the Twins’ ultimate last-place fate appeared a likelihood but not a certainty, it took some time for club leadership to fully come to terms with the idea that the hopes for a third straight AL Central title wouldn’t even make it to the second half.
That’s not to say that the talent -- or exemplary individual seasons -- weren’t there, as was evident one last time in Sunday’s season finale at Kauffman Stadium, when the Twins put on a show to avoid a 90-loss season with a 7-3 win over the Royals.
What more can you say for Jorge Polanco, who crushed a three-run homer as part of a five-run first inning for his career-best 33rd blast of the season, a year in which he led the Twins in hits, runs, doubles, homers, RBIs and stolen bases? Or for Byron Buxton, who doubled and homered again in a torrid finish to a season that was somehow less eye-popping, still, than his otherworldly start to the campaign?
Even Josh Donaldson, whose aging legs and durability were questioned by many throughout the season, still exemplified his pregame message of leading by example to the bitter end, taking advantage of a lackadaisical play by Whit Merrifield in the first inning with an opportunistic, all-out sprint to third base, capping a season in which his batted-ball numbers were better than ever.
“Really, I've been proud of the way our team's competed all the way through,” Donaldson said. “Even though we are in last place, we've been giving it hell for 162 now. Nobody's laid down. Nobody's said die. We went out there and we played, and we played hard."
Despite all of that, it’s no big question as to why the Twins finished at 73-89, a far cry from their 101 wins during their last full season in 2019. Relief pitching cost them early in the season, they fell into a hole, a brunt of the starting rotation underperformed, and with a spurt of early injuries mixed in, the Twins just never got themselves going.
As evidenced by the Twins’ improvement in August (14-13) and September/October (15-15) following their moves at the July 30 Trade Deadline, they rose to the challenge offered by manager Rocco Baldelli and his staff around the Deadline, with the semblance of a winning team still in there somewhere. As the club breaks for an uncertain offseason, Baldelli and others will search for the whys, what-ifs and hows that might help them reach that level from Day 1 in 2022 following the toughest season of the young skipper’s career.
“There might have been times in April where I could have been harder on our group and just laid things out very flatly and talked about accountability early,” Baldelli said. “We’ve had a group here that has played through ups and downs over the last three years and as a whole has come out in a good spot.
“As a whole, you rely on good players to go out there, make adjustments and play well and you show them support, you keep them going. This year, that approach, early on, at least, didn’t get us where we needed to be, and that’s something that maybe I could have handled differently with our players and with our club.”
But it will all start with a pivotal offseason in which the Twins will need to fortify a young pitching staff that posted a 4.83 ERA, gain clarity on Byron Buxton’s future and re-examine, from all facets, why a once-promising season ended here, on Oct. 3, in Kansas City.
“We need to assess everything,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “I look at it, really, the same way I looked at the end of '19 or '20, which is, the next year's team isn't a given that it's going to be a return to what the previous season was -- or that it's also going to be a struggle like it was this year.”
“We have work to do,” Baldelli said. “We know it. We are going to own it going forward. We owe it to the fans. We owe it to the organization. We all know that. I think everyone in our locker room right now knows that. No one is sidestepping that. We owe it to the supporters of the Minnesota Twins to do better going forward, and we're going to step on it this offseason and get to it."