MINNEAPOLIS -- After losing 90 games or more in five or their last six seasons, including a Major League-worst 103 losses in 2016, the expectations weren't exactly high for the Twins in '17.
But the Twins defied the odds, becoming the first team to go from losing 100 games one season to the postseason the next, with their surprising run to the American League Wild Card Game against the Yankees. Twins manager Paul Molitor more than ably guided the club, and for his effort, he deserves strong consideration for his first AL Manager of the Year Award over fellow finalists Terry Francona of Cleveland and A.J. Hinch of Houston.
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"I don't think he gets enough credit," said catcher Chris Gimenez, who was recently outrighted. "He sees so much on the field and he really started to loosen up, too. As a player he was intense, but he's showed off he's smart and witty, too."
The Twins set the club record with a 26-win improvement from 2016 to '17, and they did it without any major signings heading into the season. It was mostly the same core from the year before, outside of signing catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal and signing veteran leaders Matt Belisle and Gimenez to bolster the clubhouse leadership.
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Molitor, with his stoicism and even-keel nature, set the tone for the club, and veterans such as Joe Mauer, James Dozier, Ervin Santana, Castro, Belisle and Gimenez carried that down to the younger players.
"What was so impressive with Mollie is how he was still learning about being a better manager," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "It's nothing negative. When you stop learning, you might as well leave the game. He could easily say, 'I'm Paul Molitor, Hall of Famer, and we're doing it my way,' but instead he really poured into us and we poured into him and bounced off things to learn as a unit."
It showed in Minnesota's results as, unlike in past years, the Twins never fell into much of an extended funk, with their longest losing streak of the season never more than four games. But they hit a rut at an unfortunate time in late July, losing six of seven to fall 5 1/2 games back of the second AL Wild Card spot on the day of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
With five teams ahead of the Twins in the Wild Card chase, the front office decided to sell, trading lefty Jaime Garcia and closer Brandon Kintzler. The moves weren't well-received in the clubhouse, so Molitor took it upon himself to tell his players that they weren't waving any white flags and that they had no reason not to continue to keep fighting for a postseason spot, as they had no outside expectations and nothing to lose.
Inspired by hearing the Bruce Springsteen song "No Surrender" on his morning walk in San Diego, Molitor wrote, "No Retreat, No Surrender" on the white-board next to that day's lineup card. The Twins went on to win 20 games in August for the first time since 1967 and hung on in September to make the postseason for the first time since 2010.
The Twins lost to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game in New York, but Molitor was rewarded after the season with a three-year contract. Now, the Hall of Famer is looking to add to his hardware, as he won four Silver Slugger Awards and was the MVP of the 1993 World Series during his playing career but is aiming for his first Manager of the Year Award after being named a finalist in his first season with the Twins in 2015.
"He's our leader," Dozier said. "We feel lucky to have him."