Faith, Bombas and an AL Central title for Twins

September 26th, 2019

DETROIT -- It's all about belief, explained.

The 2019 Minnesota Twins knew they had a ton of talent -- on paper. But, Cruz says, everything actually starts when those players, both individually and as a group, develop confidence and trust in that talent. When they believe. Cruz believed in the potential of this team. He just needed everybody else to believe it, too, and that's what he told his teammates when he addressed them during Spring Training.

"It was something like that I believed that we have a really, really good group of guys and we were going to rake, and everybody was going to be ... afraid of us when we go to play," Cruz said with a grin earlier this season.

As the league now knows, Cruz couldn't have been more right.

The Twins defied all 2019 preseason expectations for the American League Central and dragged the game to new power-hitting heights. That journey of resilience, belief and bombas came to an exhilarating head at Comerica Park on Wednesday night, when Minnesota officially clinched its first division championship since '10 and sealed its first trip to the postseason since '17.

“I think our fans now see, not just tonight, but they see the future,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said. “I think they believe in the front office and they think there are better days ahead. We're excited about what can happen in the next month. We're also excited about 2020 and beyond."

The Twins had entered the game with a magic number of two to win the division, needing a win over Detroit and a Cleveland loss to the White Sox to secure their crown. Minnesota did its part behind six suffocating innings from rookie Randy Dobnak on the way to a 5-1 victory.

But because the Indians and White Sox got underway 90 minutes after first pitch in Detroit, the Twins departed the field with the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showing an early lead for Chicago.

In one corner of the visitors’ clubhouse, Lewis Thorpe, Kohl Stewart, Ian Miller and Zack Littell played cards as they watched the game on a small black laptop propped up on a chair. Jonathan Schoop and Jorge Polanco played checkers, while two different games of dominoes popped up in the clubhouse. Assistant general manager Rob Antony, bench coach Derek Shelton and manager Rocco Baldelli -- with the remnants of his birthday cake on his forehead -- settled into the manager’s office.

There, they all erupted as the White Sox sealed an 8-3 win over the Indians, setting up the Twins for a date in the postseason against either the Astros or the Yankees for their first appearance in the AL Division Series in nine years.

"I've been telling a lot of guys: This has been a long time coming,” said Kyle Gibson, the longest-tenured player on the Twins. “It's something we've been working towards for a long time. To bring in the pieces that we did and to believe in ourselves like we did and come back in a lot of situations and fight injuries the whole time, there's a lot of guys I'm really, really proud of.

“To be able to celebrate this with these guys -- not just today, but the next four days -- this is going to be a lot of fun, and we'll get right back to work on Monday, because we've got more we want to do."

With the Twins coming off a disappointing 2018 campaign in which they finished 78-84 and a distant second place in the AL Central, Cleveland was the odds-on favorite to win another division title in the eyes of many around the country. But in the Minnesota clubhouse -- and throughout the organization, as a matter of fact -- there was a talented group of young players who were ready to take the next step forward.

"We didn't know what our team was," starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi said. "We knew what we were on paper, but we didn't know what kind of team we were going to have on the field."

What they got on the field was breakout seasons from all corners of the depth chart. Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sanó, Polanco and Mitch Garver all set career highs in homers. Polanco started the All-Star Game at shortstop for the AL.

And then there were Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Littell, who anchored a young pitching staff, Luis Arraez, Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe and Cody Stashak, who weren’t on the Major League roster -- and, in Dobnak’s case, even on the radar -- at the beginning of the season before making tangible impacts on the club’s playoff run down the stretch.

Along with free-agent additions like C.J. Cron, Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez and Cruz, what eventually proved to be a record-setting assembly of sluggers made a routine out of six-homer games, tape-measure shots to the third deck and power shows unlike those that had been seen in Minneapolis for decades.

On May 24, Rosario stood in front of his locker in the Twins' clubhouse after they had mashed three more taters in a win over the White Sox. Asked about how much fun he was having as part of such a powerful lineup, Rosario delivered the line that would define the season.

"When you’re hitting a lot of bombas, everybody’s hitting bombas, everybody’s happy," Rosario said.

In that moment, the "Bomba Squad" was born.

Cruz insisted that forging that identity was a meaningful step for this team on the field, too. During the Spring Training meeting, Cruz emphasized the importance of the perception of a baseball team.

How would they want opposing teams and fans to feel when the Twins arrived on enemy turf?

"Do you want them to see you as, 'OK. This is a team that I can dominate,'" Cruz asked. "Or, 'Be careful. Don't miss a pitch. We can be down in one swing.' We needed to just find an identity, and we found that one.

"It's called the Bomba Squad."

Their resolve -- and that confidence -- was enough to withstand a furious challenge from the three-time defending division champions as the summer stretched on and the Twins dealt with significant injuries across their depth chart.

Contrary to popular belief at the time, the world did not end on Aug. 9, when Cleveland beat Minnesota, 6-2, at Target Field to pull into a tie for the AL Central lead. A little more than two months earlier, the Twins had led the division by 11 1/2 games. Odorizzi issued a public reassurance to Twins fans after throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings to reclaim first place on the following day.

"For the city in general that’s in panic mode right now: Everything is going to be fine," Odorizzi said at the time. "We’ve got to go out and do our jobs, but it’s easy to find panic. There’s no panic in here."

Gibson took out his phone just before the Twins began their wild celebration on Wednesday night and revisited all of the predictions in the media before the season began that had Cleveland winning the division and Minnesota among the other teams in the AL Central trying to play catch-up.

It's just that the Twins believed all along that they were better than the Indians. They knew that they were never going to maintain the frenetic pace of their 40-18 start. They also knew that Cleveland would not keep up the 41-16 stretch that tied the rivals in the race for the division.

“You've got guys saying that we're nothing more than a Cinderella,” Gibson said. “You've got people saying that the cushion was going to be plenty for Cleveland to overcome. ... So it's not something that we publicized in the clubhouse, but there were a lot of guys that knew exactly where everybody had us finishing.”

The Twins proved everyone wrong. They took the Tribe's best shot and triumphed.

"I think it just kind of vindicates what we've been saying all year," Odorizzi said.