The Twins allegedly almost died in the early 2000s, threatened by “contraction.” A surge in popularity sparked by a dynamic group of young players helped the team secure financing on a new ballpark in 2006.
By the time the Twins opened Target Field in 2010, the team had become one of baseball’s model franchises. When they christened the beautiful new ballpark with a playoff series in 2010, the Twins had extended their season beyond the usual 162 games in seven of nine seasons.
A senior Twins official, in a casual conversation in 2010, said: “We have a generation of fans who think this is the norm. It’s not always going to be this way.”
He was correct. The Twins have frequently embarrassed themselves as Target Field entertainers. From 2001 through 2010, the Twins averaged 89 victories per season. From 2011 through 2018, they averaged 71.
Tuesday night, the Twins returned from a trip in which they split four games, meaning they had lost five of their past eight overall. They were greeted with questions about their inability to continue on a 120-victory pace.
Let’s be clear: The greatest compliment you can pay to the 2019 Twins is to accuse them of being in a slump.
This is not a slump. The years 2011 through 2016 — that was a slump. Just like the years 1993 through 2000, when the Twins failed to produce a winning record.
The 2019 Twins have yet to lose three games in a row, or have a losing record on a road trip. They have baseball’s second-best record and remain on pace to set a big-league record for home runs.
Their performance over the past two weeks doesn’t qualify as a toe stub, much less a headlong tumble down the stairs.
If this team did slump, it might be doing this fan base a favor. Target Field was supposed to host suspenseful games every summer. It has fulfilled that mandate for just three months — July through September in 2017.
This is not an assurance that the 2019 Twins will win the American League Central by double digits. Any team can slump at any time.
This is a reminder that this team has won at such a ridiculous pace that a stretch of market-correcting normalcy should not be misconstrued as backsliding.
Because of the nature of the game, there are concerns, and there will always be concerns. The Twins aren’t the same team without Byron Buxton, and manager Rocco Baldelli indicated Tuesday that Buxton’s return might not be imminent.
Jose Berrios has a blister, the rest of the rotation was unimpressive the last turn and the Twins’ sluggers were quieted by a bunch of average arms in Kansas City over the weekend.
Miguel Sano continues to strike out as if he were blindfolded, and the team’s insistence on resting players and being cautious with injuries means you can see lineups like the one Baldelli posted Tuesday.
It featured Willians Astudillo batting seventh and playing right field, ahead of Sano, who is hitting .211.
Two interesting notes on Sano: Entering Tuesday, he had a career-best slugging percentage and a career-worst strikeout percentage. He is swinging at and missing pitches that any quality hitter should crush, and he should be a quality hitter.
That is another sign of how far the Twins have come. For a handful of seasons, Sano was seen as a savior.
Now, on the Twins’ best team in a long time, Sano is batting eighth, behind Astudillo.
Tuesday night, with Buxton out and Kepler playing center, Astudillo made a spectacular catch in right field foul territory, produced an RBI single and a rally-sparking double in his first two at-bats and finished 3-for-4.
Before the game, in the clubhouse, teammates wore T-shirts and recorded videos supporting Twins All-Star candidates. The atmosphere was loose and fun.
Then they beat a good Tampa Bay team 9-4, increased their lead to 8½ games and continued their still-slumpless season.