Twins' milestones have significance
Maybe all you need to know about the Minnesota Twins was on display in the bottom of the third inning Wednesday afternoon at Target Field. This would be the day the Twins would grab a share of first place in the American League Central, the day of another raucous clubhouse celebration after a 6-4 victory over the Red Sox. Sure, there's a long way to go, but for Minnesota, these small milestones have significance.
The Twins trailed the Red Sox, 2-0, in the bottom of the third inning, but they had the tying runs on base when veteran outfielder Torii Hunter stepped to the plate against Boston starter Rick Porcello.
Porcello got in front of Hunter 1-2, but then the battle began. Hunter fouled off a 93-mph fastball and took two close pitches for balls. He fouled off a changeup, and as Porcello tried a bit of everything, Hunter finally got a pitch he could handle. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he squibbed a Porcello fastball down the right-field line to score two runs and tie the game at 2.
Another Twins veteran, Joe Mauer, followed Hunter to the plate and did the same thing. He, too, fought off good pitches, took some close ones, waited for his moment. That happened on the ninth pitch of the at-bat when Mauer singled to center to score the go-ahead run.
The Twins would do plenty of other things right. They would add three more runs. Starter Phil Hughes would get the game into the seventh, and it would take four relievers to put the ball into the hands of closer Glen Perkins in the ninth.
But those two at-bats were these Twins at their best, a reflection of their toughness and resilience and competitive fire. With Perkins converting his 18th straight save chance, Minnesota was 28-18 and tied with Kansas City for first place in the AL Central. The Twins are also 10 games above .500 for the first time in five years and have won 12 of their past 14 at home.
Afterward, there was a sense that the best may be yet to come.
"I think we can sustain it," Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan said. "Obviously a lot of things contribute to that. We haven't had a losing streak to test us yet, but we've gotten pummeled a couple of times and bounced right back."
Actually, the Twins were tested right at the beginning with a 1-6 start. With Hall of Famer Paul Molitor taking over for Ron Gardenhire as manager and a new mix of players, that start was the one thing Ryan had hoped to avoid.
But when things turned, they turned quickly and decisively. Minnesota is 27-12 since, including a 19-6 sprint into first place.
In this stretch, the Twins are scoring almost six runs a game. Are they for real? Their rotation is solid. Their closer, Perkins, is tremendous. Second baseman Brian Dozier and third baseman Trevor Plouffe are playing at an All-Star level.
And there have been contributions from up and down the roster. But it begins with that rotation. After 46 games last season, Minnesota's starters had a 5.04 ERA. This season, it's 3.99.
The Twins' everyday lineup is mostly homegrown, but in the past two offseasons, Ryan added four starting pitchers via free agency: Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana and Mike Pelfrey.
Pelfrey has emerged as a huge addition after a spring in which he was removed from the rotation and sent to the bullpen. He didn't stay there long after Santana was suspended for 80 games for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Minnesota is 7-2 in Pelfrey's nine starts. Santana is eligible to return on July 4, but he'll have to compete for someone else's spot.
The Twins have taken some cues from Molitor, who preached an aggressive approach for Dozier at the top of the order. The club has scored 103 of its 212 runs in the first three innings.
"It's been a tough four years up here," Ryan said. "This is very gratifying to see. We're finding ways to win. Sometimes, it's not pretty. Sometimes, you don't know what happened. We've had all kinds of contributors. We just seem to find a way."
Now about those past four years. Minnesota was 265-383. That's an average of 96 losses a season. Only the Houston Astros, another surprise first-place team, lost more games. So the Twins believe this first part of the 2015 schedule is about setting a new tone, not just for the fans, but for players, coaches, etc.
"For a lot of reasons," Ryan said. "For the confidence of the players, for sure. Getting the fans confidence and respect back is important. Fans up here have been through tough times. Our support and attention here of late has been very well received in that clubhouse."
In other words, every little thing is connected to every other little thing. When Ryan ended a brief retirement and returned as general manager after the 2011 season, he knew there was work to do.
Ryan is among the most respected executives in the sport, a man known, not for just his wisdom and judgment, but for his essential decency and a relentless commitment to doing things a certain way. To plenty of baseball people, the Twins are the team they root for after their own.
And plenty of those same people guessed Ryan would eventually get it right. His two most important moves in the offseason were hiring Molitor and signing Hunter, who began his career with Minnesota, and at 39, liked the idea of returning to help lead a turnaround. Both have worked out splendidly, Molitor for his poise and leadership, Hunter for his production and for setting an example for the young guys. At the moment, it's all working.
"One objective was just to get our confidence back," Ryan said.