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Twins clinch return to postseason

@dohyoungpark
September 20, 2020

The Twins’ offense showed up big on Saturday night. More importantly, it did it with not just homers, but also with a big inning and the timely knocks that have eluded this offense all too often against good competition toward the end of the regular season. That is a promising

The Twins’ offense showed up big on Saturday night. More importantly, it did it with not just homers, but also with a big inning and the timely knocks that have eluded this offense all too often against good competition toward the end of the regular season.

That is a promising sign against the Cubs, a first-place team. Now, can they keep it up into the postseason?

Thanks to the lineup finally putting up a lopsided total with a five-run seventh inning in an 8-1 win at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, the Twins can officially turn their eyes to October, as the victory secured Minnesota’s return to the playoffs for a second straight year.

Box score

“It’s special in there,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the Twins’ clubhouse celebration. “You only get so many opportunities to earn something like that, to celebrate it. We’re going to celebrate every time we have the opportunity. The guys are ready. They’re just ready to see what comes next. We’re going to take tonight and have some fun, and get ready to go going forward. But we’re going to slow it down for a minute and really enjoy this.”

FAQ: What's next for Twins after clinch

“It's been a little while since we've had that big Minnesota Twins inning, but we had it,” Jake Cave said. “I think there were a lot of really cool things that happened tonight. We needed that one win. We knew it. It's kind of been eluding us for a couple of days or however many it's been since we've really been putting it on somebody. It was fun.”

Returning to October baseball is an accomplishment, to be sure, as the Twins hadn’t qualified for consecutive postseasons since 2009-10 -- but this was always the expectation. The spoken goal at the start of the season was winning the World Series. What else could possibly have been the target after adding Josh Donaldson to the most homer-happy lineup in Major League history and adding veteran depth with playoff experience to the pitching staff?

Bomba Squad 2.0 was ready to take the league by storm.

A COVID-19 delay and 54 games of a restructured season later, it would've been fair to wonder whether that fearsome lineup, which entered Saturday ranked 15th in MLB in wRC+ and 15th in OPS, could be the biggest obstacle to the Twins advancing beyond the American League Division Series for the first time since 2002, with a deep pitching staff having proved the strength of the team for large swaths of the season.

Key for Twins? Raising pitching to bats' level

Led by trade acquisition and AL WHIP leader Kenta Maeda and the strength of a deep bullpen, the Twins’ pitching staff entered Saturday with the second-highest WAR in baseball, per FanGraphs, including the fifth-best ERA and third-best FIP. That bullpen flexed its muscles with four scoreless innings on Saturday, including six strikeouts from waiver acquisition Matt Wisler, another reminder of the pitching staff’s critical role in getting the team to this point.

“This year’s team, this is a different team,” Baldelli said. “We have our own identity. We need to do it in the manner that we can do it best. Last year was a beautiful experience and a great group of guys that accomplished a lot of things. I think we’re set up right now to accomplish even more than we did last year.”

Some more help from the offense would give the Twins some wiggle room. Saturday’s breakout was an encouraging step.

Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sanó and Donaldson cracked solo homers. But in that sixth inning, Baldelli’s decision to use Cave as an early pinch-runner for Alex Avila helped the Twins finally break through with a two-out RBI single from Rosario for the go-ahead run. Minnesota had entered the game 7-for-50 (.140) with runners in scoring position in the last 10 games -- all against teams in playoff position.

That opened the floodgates in the seventh, when Sanó led off with his homer before the Twins put their next five runners on base, aided by a throwing error by Cubs shortstop Javier Báez. Mitch Garver, pinch-hitting in his second game off the injured list, clubbed a fastball for a two-run single. Byron Buxton also joined the fun with a two-out RBI knock. It marked the Twins’ first five-run inning since Aug. 12.

“It’s fun. That’s when you have those types of innings and it feels contagious,” Baldelli said. “The offensive performances and the at-bats, those are the things that can really get you going in a lot of ways and they boost you. They boost the energy, they boost the confidence in the next guy coming to the plate. It is amazing.

“When those things start to roll in those ways, positive things -- when positive things happen, it feels like even more positive things seem to happen, and there’s no way to qualify momentum and there’s no reason to, but anyone on a baseball field or watching a baseball game knows it’s real, and we saw a little bit of it tonight.”

Part of this was getting healthy, since the Twins have dealt with injuries to Willians Astudillo, Buxton, Donaldson, Garver, Max Kepler, Avila, Luis Arraez and Brent Rooker at various points this season. Of that group, only Arraez is still on the injured list.

Donaldson remarked that it would help for the full offense to get more games together and get back into a rhythm. That momentum-building can resume on Sunday in the series finale.

The AL Central is still up for grabs, and the No. 5 seed Twins (32-22) are still jostling with the No. 4 seed Yankees (31-21) for home-field advantage in a Wild Card Series. The Twins know their work isn’t over.

But for one hard-earned night, one that didn’t come easily due to injuries, the Chicago White Sox and other factors, the Twins put that in the back of their minds and celebrated.

“One thing it may not be is the night-to-morning party that it can be at times,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ expected revelry. “But it’s possible that it’s going to be a little bit different, a little bit more subdued, but just as meaningful and maybe even more so because of what year it is and everything that has been going on.”

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.