MINNEAPOLIS -- All that offseason excitement feels like such a long time ago -- the buzz around the Twins after the splashy signing of Josh Donaldson, the blockbuster trade for Kenta Maeda and the idea that a reinforced Bomba Squad would bash and soar to another American League Central championship.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Nothing was in 2020.
The offense never quite found its stride and five members of the starting lineup were sidelined with injuries at various points throughout the season -- most notably, Donaldson for a month. Eight days ago, the Twins trailed the White Sox by three games in the division with little more than a week to play. Two months ago, players and coaches weren’t even sure that they’d even be able to finish a regular season, anyway.
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The Twins overcame all of that. With a 10-8 White Sox loss on Sunday, Minnesota officially clinched its second straight American League Central title, finishing atop the division in consecutive years for the first time since 2009-10. With their 5-3 loss to the Reds, the Twins fell into the No. 3 seed in the AL and will host the No. 6 Astros in the Wild Card Series starting Tuesday.
“I think about our players and our staff and the amount of sacrifice that was required this year,” team president Dave St. Peter said. “Really challenging environment with COVID and all of the social justice issues we faced as a community.
“It’s a rewarding day for our organization. You never take it for granted. It’s always an honor to get to the postseason. To win the division in consecutive seasons is special. We’re really going to enjoy tonight, but we know there’s a lot ahead of us. We’re excited to take on that challenge on Tuesday.”
They will first get to celebrate the 60th season of Twins baseball in Minnesota by hoisting another division championship banner on the façade of Target Field. It’s a banner unlike any other considering the unique circumstances of the season. The same will eventually be the case for the World Series trophy.
The Twins would contend that any such decorations from this season won’t mean any less. In fact, under the circumstances, they might very well mean more.
"The mental toughness in this group is off the charts,” Taylor Rogers said. “It was something really cool to be a part of. It's nothing that anybody has to talk about. I think it's kind of one of those unspoken things.”
“I would imagine we've faced more adversity this year than any other year, just trying to navigate the whole dynamic,” Falvey said earlier in the week. “I said this at the outset of the season, and I'll say it again: I think whoever ultimately hoists the trophy at the end of it all will have persisted through some really unique circumstances. And while it's not the same number of games, they've certainly earned it through the challenges that they've faced, that's for sure."
Under Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, the Twins organization has come a long way since the nadir of a club-record 103 losses in 2016. A club that suffered four last-place finishes in the division since its last title in ‘10 has not only righted the ship, but excelled in the last two seasons.
Minnesota’s 101 wins in 2019 ranked second in club history, and the club tied for second in the AL with a 36-24 record in this shortened season.
It just goes to show how much has changed that this AL Central championship was always the expectation and the stated goal was the World Series. As the Twins controlled their own destiny in the division over the last several days, they offered the reminder that a title would only be a first step on the way to their true goal.
It took some time for that next step to become clear, though.
The Twins entered Sunday with the possibility of landing in three playoff seeds, against any one of five opponents in the Wild Card Series.
All they knew was that they could secure the AL Central with either a win over the Reds or a White Sox loss to the Cubs at Guaranteed Rate Field. All else was out of their hands.
In the age of COVID-19, the Twins couldn’t even keep tabs on the games relevant to their destiny from the clubhouse. They had to rely on the large out-of-town scoreboard above the right-field bleachers. Manager Rocco Baldelli and the Twins have been adamant that they’re content to take care of their own business and let the cards fall.
That didn’t stop them from being curious.
“Trust me, anybody who says they weren’t looking at the White Sox game -- especially the second half of that game -- or the Cleveland game, they were probably lying,” Baldelli said. “But that’s OK. We’ll let them lie.”
The No. 3 seed and a matchup with the 29-31 Astros -- owners of the worst record, by far, in the AL field -- appeared remote, but the pieces slowly fell into place. First, Oakland came from behind to lock up a win over the Mariners. The Cubs took a nine-run lead on the White Sox, but the South Siders clawed back and weren’t finished off until the Twins and Reds were tied in the 10th inning.
Once that was secure? First, a sigh of relief in the dugout. Then, Baldelli took his foot off the gas for Minnesota’s final two outs, a title in the books.
All of that set up a first-round playoff matchup against a team not named the Yankees for the first time since 2006. Perhaps that’s a good omen for the Twins to finally snap their inglorious streak of 16 straight postseason losses, including 13 to New York.
The Twins prefer to think that their more experienced and balanced team this October might help, too. It’s a group that was rather surprisingly led by the defense and pitching staff -- the third-most valuable staff in the Majors, per FanGraphs -- and weathered more than its share of close games in the regular season.
“We think that’s a recipe for success here in October,” St. Peter said.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, the Twins will savor some degree of accomplishment with the division in hand. But they’re adamant that the best is yet to come.
“A lot of questions were asked whether it had the same feeling, considering as many teams are making it, things like that,” Tyler Duffey said. “I think having the banner, having that pennant up, matters. Second place means you got in. Third place, whatever. But having that banner with that year on it, that’s forever. And that’s something we all think is very special.”
“I want to be clear: These are great days, but our group doesn't feel like we're done in any way,” Baldelli said. “We feel like we're just getting going.”
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.