Twins clinch AL Central, eye long-awaited postseason win

September 23rd, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- This isn’t at all the path the Twins thought this season would take -- and that’s what’s poised to make the end result of this journey even more rewarding for years to come.

This lineup was built with Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa as its focal points; instead, it’s the rookies and youngsters who blossomed, matured and flourished before the eyes of Twins fans. As Minnesota celebrates its first American League Central title since 2020, all that is a reflection of how that new generation spurred the offense’s second-half turnaround -- and perhaps, how they could make this October different from those that came before.

The Twins have triumphed in the present -- and, just as importantly, they’ve found their future in the likes of Royce Lewis, Edouard Julien, Matt Wallner and Alex Kirilloff.

“All those guys, they missed some time, whether it's in the Major Leagues or certainly in the Minor Leagues,” bench coach Jayce Tingler said. “Watching them grow up here, it's been an absolute blast. We just want to make sure they continue to keep going forward these last couple weeks. We want to play our best ball getting into the playoffs.”

That playoff destiny has been essentially secure for some time after the Twins buried the Guardians in a three-game series earlier in September, but it finally became a certainty with an 8-6 victory over the Angels in front of an energetic crowd of 32,006 on Friday night at Target Field.

This marks the third time in five seasons under manager Rocco Baldelli that the Twins have won the AL Central. And though they also hung banners in 2019 and ‘20, Friday night marked the first time Minnesota has been able to celebrate a clinch in front of its home fans since '10 -- and those from in and around the Upper Midwest turned out in force to celebrate.

The Twins are almost certainly locked into the AL’s No. 3 seed, which means those fans will get a chance to see their team in postseason action in a best-of-three Wild Card Series from Oct. 3-5. Minnesota will host the lowest-seeded AL Wild Card team, which remains a toss-up between Toronto, Texas, Seattle and Houston.

The starting pitching did the brunt of the work in keeping the team afloat during its prolonged offensive inconsistency in the first half, and that rotation has the makings of the deepest, most consistent group the Twins have fielded into a postseason in quite some time. Led by Pablo López, who tossed his 20th quality start of the season in Friday’s clincher, they’ve been the bedrock of this team’s success.

The front office did its part, too, making productive, under-the-radar acquisitions such as acquiring Donovan Solano, Willi Castro, Kyle Farmer and Michael A. Taylor to ensure the Twins’ depth was in much better shape than it was in the disastrous spiral last September.

But the X-factor has undoubtedly been the rookies who sparked the offense’s turnaround to make Minnesota a more complete team surging at the right time in the second half. Lewis had to get healthy from his two torn ACLs, while Julien and Wallner had to force the Twins’ hand into giving them regular playing time through their performance.

“It's tough to imagine, right?” Julien said. “Because you really dream of playing here first. You don't really think, ‘Oh, I want to help the team make the playoffs.’ You're trying just to be here and just to help the team win.”

Down the stretch, Julien quickly became a fixture in the leadoff spot, Lewis established himself as the everyday No. 3 hitter and Wallner found himself hitting in RBI situations -- and the offense took off. In the first half, the Twins ranked 20th out of 30 teams in offensive WAR, per FanGraphs; since the All-Star break, they rank sixth.

It’s no coincidence that, among AL rookies with at least 200 plate appearances, Lewis ranks first, Wallner ranks third and Julien ranks fourth in wRC+, a league-adjusted measure of overall offensive performance.

“For us, it was about, yeah, bringing in the Kyle Farmers and the Michael Taylors and the Donovan Solanos, the Willi Castros, sure,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “But it was about knowing the Eddie Juliens and the Matt Wallners [and] the Trevor Larnachs were also going to find a way to help us along the way.”

Correa is among the most decorated and experienced playoff performers in recent baseball history -- and when he looks at the rookies who have seized the reins of the offense, he draws an easy parallel to the young Astros players who became the cornerstones of Houston’s dynasty.

“It’s just all the guys that I see right away, and I know they’re going to become superstars,” Correa said of Lewis. “He’s one of the [Alex] Bregmans, one of the [Kyle] Tuckers, one of the [Yordan] Alvarezes. When they come in right away, they make an impact on your team, and they’re going to keep doing it for a long time.

“If I were to compare, I would compare [him] with those guys. As soon as they came into the clubhouse and they walked in, I knew they were going to be great, and they are great right now. He’s going to be one of those.”

That makes it all the more critical that the Twins get Lewis back in some form for the upcoming AL Wild Card Series. He sustained a left hamstring strain that pushed him out of Tuesday’s game against the Reds and landed him on the 10-day IL on Friday. The Twins don’t know if they’ll get him back in time -- and, if so, in what capacity.

Even putting aside Lewis’ record-breaking penchant for grand slams and clutch knocks that has him third on the team with 52 RBIs despite having played in only 58 games, he has also quickly become one of the emotional centers of the clubhouse with his energy and charisma.

The youngsters attribute much of their performance to how readily the clubhouse has accepted, welcomed and embraced them -- and, with Lewis leading the way, they have loudly taken the lead.

“Just let the kids play,” Lewis said in August. “That term is perfect for our team. We've got a lot of young guys. Let the kids play. People like me wearing baby blue, that's just who I am. I'm having fun when I play my game, Eddie's playing his game, AK, the list goes on and on.”

“The young guys are bringing a lot of energy to us, and that just makes us do a lot more things out there,” said Jorge Polanco, the longest-tenured player in the organization.

“What's cool about our veteran guys is that I think that this is the type of clubhouse where when guys come in, they don't care about how long you've been here,” Falvey added. “They just want to know how you're going to help us.”

Polanco and Max Kepler have also been significant factors in that turnaround with rejuvenated contributions on offense. Plus, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ryan Jeffers’ breakout, Castro’s all-around mastery of the little things in a throwback to the Piranha-ball of the Metrodome teams and the overall depth of the contributions from all around the roster, with a club-record 12 players having reached double-digit homers.

With the electric rookie class already having injected new life into the club and its fanbase, it now faces its biggest challenge yet: Can those young guys be the ones to finally help end the record 18-game postseason losing streak, which looms large over this region and fanbase as the final frontier to be vanquished before the new era of these new Twins can arrive?

One thing’s for sure: they feel ready to earn the club's first postseason win since Oct. 5, 2004 (Game 1 of the ALDS).

“I don't feel pressure,” Julien said. “I'm just playing baseball and having fun. We're just happy that we're building a team that's better than the other ones in the division so far. I played in the playoffs in the Minor Leagues. I played in the playoffs in college. It's similar. I'm just excited to see what it's going to feel like here with all the fans and the hype. It's going to be fun.”