CLEVELAND -- Whether the Rockies nail down the second National League Wild Card slot or somehow cede it to the Brewers or Cardinals, half of this year's postseason field will be made up of clubs that didn't advance to the playoffs in 2016. There are so many great stories amid this remarkable tournament turnover, but the Minnesota Twins -- more than any other October entrant -- are the team that inspires us to sit at the bar, put bread in their jar and say, "Man, what are you doing here?"
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The Twins lost 103 games last year, and there weren't many in the game who expected them to be much better this year. There was too much youth in the lineup, too many unknowns on the pitching staff and too little assurance that a solid-but-not-spectacular April, May and June was anything more than a mirage. So to see them clinch the second American League Wild Card spot Wednesday was remarkable.
Now, look, we all know the Twins are benefactors of format here. Perhaps you've heard the trivia tidbit that they are the first team in history to lose 100 games one year and reach the postseason the next. But of course, they are one of only five teams that have even had the opportunity to do so since MLB expanded its postseason to the current format in 2012.
"If we weren't in that format, we're not having these conversations," manager Paul Molitor said. "We've taken advantage of a year in which there's only a handful of teams over .500 in the American League, and we've put ourselves in a position to extend our season."
But this is still a remarkable position for a team that did what the vast majority of us considered to be the sensible thing at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in trading closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals and starter Jaime Garcia (who had only recently been acquired ahead of a brutal losing week) to the Yankees.
That was supposed to be it, and Miguel Sano's left shin injury just a few weeks later was really supposed to be it.
"That's the beauty of it," second baseman James Dozier said. "People responded to that stuff and put us in the position we're in."
Remember, Dozier wasn't supposed to be here. And by that I don't mean he wasn't supposed to be soaked in champagne in Minnesota's clubhouse. I mean he wasn't supposed to be in the Twins' clubhouse at all. He was supposed to be dealt to the Dodgers, right?
That was to be the first major test of chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, the analytically inspired minds who took over Minnesota's front office last offseason -- extracting proper value out of Dozier after his monster 42-homer season in 2016. The Dodgers were willing to surrender one prospect of value for Dozier; the Twins wanted two.
So here he is. And here they are.
What Falvey and Levine inherited was not just a team that lost 103 games in 2016, but also one that won 83 games in '15. So the situation wasn't entirely dreary, and the upside presented by the likes of Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton was tantalizing, even if it wasn't widely expected to move the needle much.
"We had a good team, but something had to change," Dozier said. "So we set out to change a lot of things at Spring Training. Clean a bunch of stuff up -- just fundamental baseball that we had to be better at."
The Twins went from minus-49 on the defensive runs saved scale last year to plus-11. Much of that is intrinsically tied to Buxton's full season in center, where he's put together a no-doubt-about-it Gold Glove Award campaign. But the offseason signings of veteran catchers Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez improved the performance behind the plate as well.
Beyond the Berrios breakout and Ervin Santana's strongest season by ERA+ of his long career, there's nothing outlandish about Minnesota's pitching staff. Two big keys of late have been the fresh-faced Trevor Hildenberger stepping into setup situations and veteran Matt Belisle assuming the closing duties in the wake of the Kintzler trade.
The real magic rests in the bats, particularly since Sano (28 homers, .870 OPS) was sidelined after fouling a ball off his shin on Aug. 19. Dozier has delivered, Buxton has bounced back from a brutal first half, Joe Mauer has had a renaissance, Eduardo Escobar has had an out-of-nowhere power surge, Jorge Polanco has come up clutch, etc. In keeping with the season's theme, the Twins came through biggest when it was easiest to count them out.
There's nothing worse in sports than when players from clearly qualified title teams try to tell us, "Nobody believed in us!" But Minnesota has every right to utter that right about now. Heck, at a time of year when every team is making honest and important evaluations about its place in the pecking order, not even the Twins' own front office thought this was possible.
Now, Minnesota is preparing for an AL Wild Card Game that will likely be in the Bronx, where it will be roundly counted out. Not just because the Yankees have the clear edge in the standings, in run differential and in various metrics, but also because they've beaten the Twins in 89 of the clubs' past 122 meetings, including four postseason series since 2003.
But the Twins beg the question of why would we even bother to count them out now.
"Nothing fazes us," Dozier said. "Who cares who we're playing?"
Who knew they'd be playing in that game at all?