The Twins had many reasons to avoid another slow start. The main one: Last season’s 1-6 start and 10-12 April stumble were fresh on everyone’s minds.
Everything the Twins did in spring training was meant to assure a strong start. The playoffs were a realistic goal, they felt, after being in contention for the final wild-card spot until the final weekend of 2015.
Yet, the Twins have done it again in 2016. No, they’ve done it worse.
They wrapped up the first month of the season Saturday with another loss, 4-1 to Detroit, and are 7-17 and nine games out of first place in the AL Central.
It’s too early to give up on the postseason, especially with two wild-card berths. The Rangers were 7-14 in April last year and reached the playoffs. But the Twins will have to rally from back in the pack once again.
“Regardless if it is a one-run loss or a blowout it is going into the standings [as a loss],” General Manager Terry Ryan said, “and what’s that old saying? We can’t win a pennant in April, but we sure as heck can lose one. We don’t want to be in that predicament where we can’t dig ourselves out.”
It’s going to be tough. Four teams in the AL Central — everyone but the Twins — entered the weekend with a winning record, the only division in the majors that could make that claim. A year ago only two AL Central teams ended April with winning records.
The White Sox have the best record in the AL, the Royals are the defending World Series champions, and Detroit and Cleveland are formidable, at least on paper.
The Twins, meanwhile, saw their offense drown in a sea of April strikeouts and a lack of situational hitting. The bullpen coughed up late leads, and closer Glen Perkins landed on the disabled list. Top starters Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson have joined Perkins on the DL.
And the biggest reasons for fan optimism, promising young players Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, instead have produced more growing pains. Buxton is now at Class AAA Rochester after hitting .156. Sano has started to come around after a slow start but has looked awkward at times while learning to play right field. Rosario continues to chase pitches out of the strike zone.
Getting close to the playoffs last season and returning with two of the top prospects in the game in Buxton and Sano were big reasons season-ticket sales increased for the first time in five years, from around 13,000 to 14,000.
“I think the fan base is ready to jump on board with this team in a much bigger way than we have seen in the last few years,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said, “but, needless to say, the slow start probably stunted some of that momentum. It can be regained, assuming we play better baseball over the course of May and into June.”
The Twins left Fort Myers believing their offense, though lacking a prototypical leadoff hitter, would be productive. There’s nothing like an 0-9 start, during which they scored a total of 14 runs, to alter that thinking. The strikeouts piled up, as did the hitless at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“It was surprising,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We talked about it a lot. No one could really figure it out. The runs we are capable of scoring, this is the most balanced lineup I’ve been a part of. Hitters one through nine with speed, power, everything. A bunch of guys who can hit the ball over the fence, a bunch of guys who can steal bases. It was kind of mind-boggling to all of us. Baseball is a weird game.”
After batting .279 with runners in scoring position last season, the Twins sit at .216 — and that’s only after a recent 34-for-110 stretch. They have scored 80 runs and struck out 9.2 times per game.
Strikeouts will be hard to avoid with this group, but lately they have taken better at-bats and put more balls in play.
“Our mindset is completely different now,” Dozier said, “because we were pressing the first week.”
To get back to where they want to be, the Twins will have to play mind games. Such as pretending they don’t have a losing record or aren’t in last place.
“You’ve just got to try to stay the course and get these guys to understand that you can’t wrap yourself up too much looking at the standings every day,” manager Paul Molitor said. “Just go about your business, try to go about winning series. When you get a chance to sweep, try to get greedy and try to peck your way back into this thing.”
To pull it off, the Twins will have to make do with Danny Santana filling in for Buxton in center field. Tyler Duffey and rookie Jose Berrios will have to step in for Ervin Santana and Gibson. Kevin Jepsen, who has blown three of five save opportunities, will have to turn things around. Eduardo Nunez’s hot bat has to stay hot, at least until Trevor Plouffe comes off the DL early this week.
But they’ve altered plans on the fly before. A year ago, from April to the end of May, Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas were replaced after poor starts. Oswaldo Arcia and Ricky Nolasco were injured and were nonfactors the rest of the season. But the Twins won 20 games in May while beginning to deal with these issues and remained relevant throughout the season.
“We had a lot of confidence because, I felt like, we had nothing to lose,” righthander Phil Hughes said. “Obviously we got off to a bad start last year and kind of just said to ourselves, ‘Let’s just play like we have nothing to lose.’ Hopefully we can do that again. We can easily go out and repeat what we did last year. Guys were just having fun and playing hard and not really worrying around our record because it was terrible.”
No, the Twins can’t give up on the postseason, but they will need another strong May to propel them back to relevancy.
“Baseball has a funny way of testing you each and every year,” Dozier said. “It just so happens the past couple of years it has been at the beginning of the season.’’