The Twins are still overwhelming favorites to win the AL Central, but the only people who probably believe that are the ones who compile playoff odds (Fangraphs: 94% Twins win division) and those resilient and confident players who occupy the Twins’ clubhouse.
Fans are now deep in their second worry spiral of the season. The first came as the Twins’ 11.5-game lead was whittled to minus-0.5, and the second is right now as Cleveland has again risen up to make a fight of it over the last two weeks. The lead is down to 3.5, and there are three big games in Cleveland this weekend before the Twins’ schedule softens again.
Those who watch horror movies should know that a particularly stout villain is never really vanquished until the final credits roll (and I promise I came up with that analogy before glancing down just now and realizing that it is, in fact Friday the 13th today).
The math tells us that if the Twins can simply avoid a sweep this weekend, they will still be in pretty good shape. Win one game, take a 2.5-game lead (three in the loss column) into the final 13 games against the lesser AL Central foes while Cleveland has some tougher series ahead? As a bare minimum, that would suffice.
But Cleveland is playing well again (suddenly) and with desperation (as they have been for a while). Twins fans aren’t wrong to be nervous.
And they are probably particularly nervous because I have come to the conclusion that most Twins fans have never really experienced a playoff chase quite like this before — at least not one where the Twins eventually came out of it with a postseason berth. The combination of a large lead vanishing and the Twins trying to fend off a foe of this quality? That hasn’t been part of the playoff playbook.
2017? There was tension in the race for the second wild card, but it was a battle of attrition won almost by default against a mediocre field.
2010? That race was tight for a while, but with two weeks left the Twins had stretched their division lead to double-digits and could coast to the finish.
2009? That was the ultimate drama, but the Twins were giving chase, not being chased all year. They were tied for the division lead on May 14. They didn’t even have a share of the lead again until October, when they finally caught the Tigers (an 86-win team) and won that dramatic Game 163.
2006? Again, the drama was tremendous but the chase was from behind — a 71-33 finish fueling a dramatic division title. From that direction, it feels like there’s a lot less to lose.
2004? The lead in September was never less than 7.5 games.
2003? The Twins finished off a tight race against the White Sox with a 19-7 September, but Chicago (86 wins) was hardly the same quality foe as Cleveland). And the Twins that year were the pursuer for much of the year, trailing the division race by 7.5 games in July.
2002? The division lead never dipped below 10 games from mid-July to the end of the year. It was as easy as could be.
1991? That’s not a bad comparison to this year … but again, the division lead was never less than 6 games in September and the next-closest team (Chicago) finished with just 87 wins.
1987? The Twins won the division with 85 wins. There were no elite teams in pursuit.
I’ll stop there because anything else goes beyond my lifetime. If you remember 1970, when the Twins led the division for most of the year, saw it wax and wane, and then surged at the end … maybe that’s the season that most resembles 2019. That was also a half-century ago.
This year’s tension is as real as it is unfamiliar. It’s strangely probably easier to be a Cleveland fan right now, with less to lose and more to gain. But it’s still better to be 3.5 up than 3.5 down, no matter how it feels or how a team got there.