Tom Kelly presided over one of the great turnarounds in baseball history in 1991 when the Twins won the World Series and posted a 95-67 regular season after finishing an American League-worst 74-88 in 1990.

This year’s Twins surpassed that 21-game turnaround Saturday night, winning their 81st game of 2017 after going 59-103, a team record for losses, last season. And despite getting dealt a tough sweep on the road against the Yankees this past week, manager Paul Molitor’s club looked in excellent position to earn a rematch at Yankee Stadium in the AL wild-card game, as they now sit 4½ games ahead of the Angels, Rangers and Royals with eight days left in the regular season.

Kelly was asked if he was surprised by the difference in performance from last season to this season.

“I don’t know if I’m surprised. Being a former manager, you expect your players to play well and give it a go each and every night and put the uniform on and go play,” Kelly said. “I think Mr. Molitor and the staff have gotten a lot out of the players this year.”

And, being a former manager, does Kelly believe Molitor deserves to get a contract extension?

“I would hope so,” Kelly said. “You don’t know what somebody else is thinking, but again Paul has gotten an awful lot out of these guys and they’re playing the game well. They’re having a mistake here and there, but everybody has those, everybody. They have been to a minimum.

“The players have put forth a good effort all season. Within all of that, we’re playing at a much, much higher level than we did a year ago. If you take out that previous year, which wasn’t too good, the year before that [83-79 in 2015, Molitor’s first season] was certainly a good, solid season for us.

“I think Paul has done a very good job, without question. The whole staff, the hitting under [coach] Mr. [James] Rowson, the pitching is better under [coach] Mr. [Neil] Allen this year. The whole staff has to be given some credit.”

Youth and experience

Kelly said this year has seen a nice balance of some veteran players keeping things steady, and some young players putting together hot seasons.

“We have some veteran players in [Joe] Mauer, [Eduardo] Escobar and [Brian] Dozier, of course, and [Jason] Castro, guys that have been around the block some,” he said. “Then we have a mixture of the [Byron] Buxtons and [Max] Keplers and [Jorge] Polancos, and they’re playing well, and of course [Eddie] Rosario, who has done terrific.”

Kelly had very high praise for Mauer, who is having an incredible bounce-back season at the plate and playing Gold Glove defense.

“Joe is just such a wonderful athlete, and he has been able to play at a higher level than he did last year, or the last couple of years, actually,” he said. “Without a question, I don’t think in my mind, he has to be the most valuable player on the team.”

When you add up the offensive development with improved defense and pitching, you gain momentum that can move a team into a playoff chase.

“The combination of pitching better and our defense is better as a result of us pitching better, it all goes hand in hand with Buxton making some terrific plays in the outfield, Kepler, Rosario, and the infielders being very solid, you know we’ve played the game at a higher level,” Kelly said. “I’m not overly surprised, I’m not shocked that we’re playing well, because as a manager you feel like your players are going to play well for you. Our players have played extremely well this year, especially on the defensive side of the game.

“I’m very happy with the way things have turned out, and hopefully we keep going for a few weeks here. You never know when you get into the playoff.”

Stepping up after Sano

The biggest loss for the Twins this season has been seeing All-Star third baseman Miguel Sano go down because of a leg injury last month. Kelly said injuries are going to be a part of the game and what has made this Twins season special is how they have rebounded in those times.

“Somebody goes down, somebody has to step up,” he said. “[Ehire] Adrianza has done a good job when he has gotten to play. Escobar has done a terrific job whether he plays third base or other infield positions. He has done a wonderful job. He has driven in a number of runs and hit the ball over the fence on occasion.

“You don’t hear Sano’s name much anymore, that’s how much these other fellas have done the job. They have been terrific as substitutes. We haven’t missed a beat substituting for him.”

Giving credit

Kelly was asked how he views the team’s performance in light of the firing of GM Terry Ryan last year. He said with any successful baseball season, there’s a lot of credit to go around.

“We talked about that the other day with a couple friends. Somebody else brought it up about Terry Ryan bringing in and developing [Tyler] Rogers, [Trevor] Hildenberger, a number of the pitchers and players on the team, Rosarios and Polancos and whatnot.

“But we have Terry Ryan to thank immensely for the development and bringing in a number of these players. The combination of Terry and what Mr. [GM Thad] Levine has done to improve the team both have to be credited, without a doubt.”

JOTTINGS

• The Vikings’ decision to sit quarterback Sam Bradford for Sunday’s game with Tampa Bay couldn’t have been an easy one. Bradford wanted to play, and was willing to take his chances, but the coaches have been encouraged by Case Keenum. He was able to work with the first team all week and looked a lot better.

 

• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knows he will have his hands full with Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. “He’s got two excellent receivers, actually he’s got a few guys,” Zimmer said of the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State. “I think he believes he can make every throw, and sometimes he’s going to take his opportunities to throw it.”

 

• Look for third-down defense to be a key component against Tampa Bay. The Vikings are seventh in the league at stopping third downs, with opponents converting just 29.2 percent of the time, but the Bucs converted at 53.3 percent last week in their 29-7 rout of the Bears.

 

• ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden, who coached Tampa Bay to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, believes the Bucs will be in the Super Bowl this year. “They have a great quarterback in Jameis Winston, a tremendous defense,” Gruden said. NFL.com had the Bucs rated as the 10th-best team in the NFL, while CBS Sports had them eighth and SB Nation had them sixth.

 

• Former Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway might have retired, but his ex-teammates still stepped up and helped play host to his seventh annual Waiter Night at Manny’s Steakhouse to raise money for his Lead the Way Foundation.

 

• A Washington Post article pointed out that Big Ten football has re-emerged of late, noting even the Michigan-Purdue game was of interest because of how well the Boilermakers had played under new coach Jeff Brohm. The Gophers visit Purdue on Oct. 7, and the Boilermakers figure to be well-prepared because they have a bye next Saturday.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com