Paul Molitor is not surprised the Twins have played so well in their past 14 games, going 9-5 after starting the season 9-16.

Their recent success has come despite the team missing third baseman Miguel Sano, who is out because of a hamstring injury and has missed 18 games, and center fielder Byron Buxton, who recently returned after missing 20 games because of a broken toe. On top of that, staff ace Ervin Santana has yet to pitch as he comes back from finger surgery in February and shortstop Jorge Polanco still is serving an 80-game suspension after a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug.

Still, Molitor said he believes the Twins can compete in the American League Central, and the struggles of the Indians have helped the Twins (18-21) remain only 1½ games out of the division lead.

After the Twins' 7-5 loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday, Molitor assessed his team at this point in the season.

"I'm hoping we're better than last year in the long run," Molitor said. "We still have a ways to go. We haven't sniffed the .500 mark here for a while. That should be your short-term goal. Obviously you try to win every day, but somehow you have to find a way back to the even-level mark and then try to build from there."

Despite the injuries, a suspension and the slow start, Molitor said the Twins are still in the division race.

"The fact that Cleveland hasn't run off with it has given us some optimism," he said. "I think we still have better baseball ahead. The injuries are part of the game, you've heard that for I don't know how many years, you have heard people talk about injuries with Sano and Buxton and now [catcher Jason] Castro [ruled out for the season Wednesday because of a knee injury] and we lost Polanco at the start of the season.

"But you know, we're doing some things better. We're playing better defense. The quality of our at-bats are getting better, even though our lineup has been thinned out a little bit. But it's always going to center around how well our starting pitching does."

Stats turn around

Through the first 25 games, the Twins staff had posted a 5.34 ERA while striking out 232 and walking 113 in 227⅔ innings.

In their most recent 14 games, including a rough outing Wednesday in which starter Lance Lynn allowed three runs in three innings and Ryan Pressly gave up two runs in one inning of relief work, the Twins have posted a 2.91 ERA while striking out 128 and walking 44 in 127 innings.

Molitor was asked about the turnaround.

"[Rookie pitcher Fernando] Romero has given us a boost," he said. "[Jose] Berrios has mostly been good. [Jake] Odorizzi has been good. We're trying to get Lance in a better place. I think he'll be fine in the long run.

"Our closer [Fernando Rodney] loves the game. At his age [41], there really hasn't been much slowing down in terms of velocity and competitiveness. He has been on a real good run his last seven to 10 appearances."

And the hitting has been better, too.

The Twins were hitting .239 through that 9-16 start with 28 homers in 25 games, with 96 RBI and 102 runs scored.

In their most recent 14 games they're hitting .254 with 16 homers, 61 RBI and 65 runs scored.

Getting stars back

Molitor said that despite Buxton's struggles at the plate, hitting .167, he thinks the Gold Glove center fielder is improving and his defense remains as important as his offense.

"He didn't get off to a good start before the migraines down there in Puerto Rico, and when you don't play up here for three weeks, we put him back in there just hoping he would make a difference defensively and hope the offense would come," Molitor said. "The last couple of days he has hit a couple of balls better, one back to the pitcher [Wednesday] and a line drive to left field [Tuesday]. So you know, I think he's starting to get his timing back."

Molitor said Sano might begin a rehab assignment this weekend.

"[Wednesday] was the best day that he's had," the Twins manager said. "He's going to be here to work out on the off day. We'll reevaluate him on Friday and if things are still progressing, we'll try to get him out on the rehab by the weekend."

Yes, Molitor remains optimistic about his club and said there isn't a reason to worry about an up-and-down start because things seem to be turning around.

"No question," he said. "We have 120 games to go. That is a lot of time to make up ground."

Jottings

• The University of Minnesota could host an NCAA regional baseball tournament if they want to make a determined effort to get it and spend the money it will take to host such an event. The Gophers (35-13, 16-4 Big Ten) are in first place in the conference by one game over Michigan, with three more at Rutgers starting Thursday to end the regular season.

• It will be interesting to see how well the new transfers that Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino has recruited are implemented this season, and who will be allowed to play right away. The latest transfer was guard Brock Stull from Wis.-Milwaukee. Xavier, one of the top teams in the country last season, was also after Stull but the Gophers won out. Stull averaged 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game last season.

• The Twins have averaged only 20,398 fans per game, which ranks 20th in baseball but first in the American League Central.

• Alex Kirilloff, the Twins' 2016 first-round pick, continues to have a big bounce-back season at Class A Cedar Rapids after missing all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery. The outfielder is hitting .310 with six home runs and 29 RBI in 31 games.

• Former Twins slugger Kennys Vargas continues to struggle at Class AAA Rochester, hitting .198 with three home runs and 11 RBI in 31 games.

• Royce Lewis is sixth in the Midwest League in hitting for Cedar Rapids with a .340 average. Lewis, only 18 years old and the No. 1 overall pick last year by the Twins, also has 12 RBI, 12 stolen bases and 16 runs scored in 25 games. He has struck out 13 times and walked nine.

• You have to wonder if former Hopkins standout Royce White got a bad deal after he and the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada parted ways right before the NBL Finals, shortly after receiving a 10-game suspension for a verbal altercation with NBL deputy commissioner Audley Stephenson. White was leading the league in scoring at 25.4 points per game and was third in the league in rebounding at 9.2 per game.