The Minnesota Twins are the hottest team in the American League.
Did I really just write that?
Wow... I did.
Not a statement I thought was going to be remotely plausible when the season got underway, given the suspension to the highest paid free agent in franchise history, and the lack of upgrades on what has been, arguably, the American League's worst offense the past three seasons. But here we sit.
Yes, it's early. It's only the first week in May. But the Wild got swept, the Vikings just got into rookie mini-camp, and the Wolves, despite some glimpses of what we all hope will be the resurgence of competitive basketball in the great white north, were a dumpster fire competing for draft lottery position; so forgive me for getting a little carried away. But after an abysmal 1-6 start, the Twins have kicked it into high gear. Despite losing to Cleveland two days ago in a series finale, the club had won nine of it's last ten, including four in a row before the loss. In total, the Twinkies have gone 17-9 in their last 26.
So how has this team, who lost it's most expensive free-agent acquisition to a PED suspension the last day of spring training (thanks, jackass), and lost 90+ games the last three seasons, find themselves in the upper-third of the MLB power rankings to start the season? And more importantly, can it continue?
First thing's first... offense. The Twins have delivered an all-out assault on the AL Central. Leading this barrage is an all too familiar face.
Torii Hunter said he was "coming home" this last offseason, and made it clear that he was here to compete. I'm not going to deny, it was hard for me to believe that the 39 year-old (he'll be 40 in two months) would be able to spear-head what has been an injury-riddled, dumpster fire of a lineup the last few years. I mean, really... how much could he possibly have left in the tank? Turns out, through one month, Hunter's still got some pop in his bat. While Twins' fans shouldn't expect to see the Hunter of old, ranging the outfield and scaling walls in Spidey-esque fashion, robbing homers and sending our collective jaws to the floor, it suddenly doesn't seem too far-fetched to believe that maybe Mr. Hunter can bring more to this club than a veteran voice within the clubhouse.
Hunter was red-hot in Cleveland. He went 7 for 12 with 2 homers and 5 RBIs. At this point, he is tied in leading the club in batting average (he's tied with Joe Mauer at .287) dingers (he's tied with Trevor Plouffe at 5), and alone atop the team in RBI's (20). He's also .429 in the month of May. Not too shabby for a guy that's been in the league for 18 years. But he's not the only veteran providing the spark.
"There's no holes in the lineup," second baseman Brian Dozier told FSN North. "I feel like everybody's kind of locked in right now. I haven't seen that in the past few years."
You're tellin' me, Brian. According, to twincitiesland.com, the twins have had 10 plus hits in 15 of 31 games on May 10. That's a good sign you're getting production from the top of the lineup to the bottom.
But it doesn't stop with the lumber. The arms have been the biggest surprise. After getting shelled in their first series of the season against the Tigers, getting outscored 22-1, the rotation has been able to get things squared away. Kyle Gibson put together a scoreless inning streak of 22, until giving up a solo homer last evening in a 2-1 loss to Detroit. Mike Pelfrey, who was asked to take a bullpen position during Spring Training, has stepped up immensely to start the season posting an ERA of 2.62 (tops in the rotation). While it hasn't been pretty for Pelfrey, his ability to eat innings has been instrumental to the hot start.
An even bigger surprise has been the bullpen. What was expected to be more of a playpen, has actually held strong. According to cbsminnesota.com, the Twins bullpen has been the 5th best in the AL, posting a 3.33 ERA, with 64 strikeouts to only 26 walks, despite losing their best set-up man Casey Fein. Glen Perkins has been his typical clutch self. The former Golden Gopher has been pitcher perfect, nailing 11 of 11 save opportunities.
Much credit must be given to Hall of Famer and new/first time manager Paul Molitor. No doubt, the club took a massive hit right out of the gates when it was revealed they would be without their newly acquired ace Earvin Santana after testing positive for stanozolol. After struggling out of the gates, the team was finally able to settle in and find their groove.
I really admire the way Molitor has experimented with the lineup. Molitor has been fairly open to moving his best veteran hitters around, shuffling Mauer and Hunter between the 2 and 3 holes in the lineup. As much as I love Mauer and what the hometown hero has been able to do for this team and the Twin Cities, it's abundantly clear that he will never be requisite of the power hitting numbers he is being paid. That doesn't make his bat any less effective, just so long as he's healthy (*proceeds to place laptop down and knock on wooden table*). When Mauer is healthy, hitting .320 by mid-season isn't far-fetched, making him a better table-setter for the big boppers behind him, than driving in the speedsters in front and back of the lineup.
As much as I respect and adored his predecessor, Ron Gardenhire, it's become extremely apparent that his voice had grown tired in the cluhouse. Molitor has been no bullsh--- nonsense since day one, placing cellphone bans in the clubhouse 30 minutes prior to game time and yanking a daydreaming Aaron Hicks in spring training for losing track of how many outs there were. Even more, he despises losing. You could see in the first seven games that he was exhausted from losing in all of his postgame press conferences. He's here to win, and to instill that attitude into the younger guys on the roster. Twins fans were ecstatic by the steps that young players such as Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, and Danny Santana took in the closing of last season. These young guns have struggled mightily out of the gates, and Molitor has handled it well.
Lavelle E. Neal, beat writer for the Twins in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, provided a prime example to Paul Allen on KFAN's" Nine to Noon" show on the Twin Cities sports radio station, indicating that the struggling Vargas was trying too hard to deliver moon-shots every time he stepped up to the plate. Molitor moved him back in the lineup, telling the kid to stop trying to hit the ball 500 ft., and to start trying to hit MLB pitches, working the count in his favor.
So the question remains, can this continue?
The easy answer would be "no." We are barely a month into the season, and it's the latter half of the season that really makes or breaks clubs. It's hard to imagine veterans such as Torii Hunter and Mike Pelfrey maintaining their pace to keep the club competitive, simply due to age. But if they can, and if Molitor can find a way to get the young guns in Vargas and Arcia launching homers in the fashion they were down the stretch, and if prospect Byron Buxton continues killing it in the minors, scorching his way through the farm system, the AL Central better keep an eye on the rearview... things could get awfully exciting come September.