When the season started in late March, expectations were high for this year's Minnesota Twins team. They were coming off of a 94 win season and the team had a payroll of over $110 million. Things were looking good. Then over the first two months of the regular season, there were injuries to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Jason Repko, Jim Thome, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan. The Twins had to call upon their AAA-affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings seemingly once a day, and sometimes twice.
As the calendar turned to June, the Twins found themselves 16.5 games back of the division-leading Cleveland Indians. Talk turned to the MLB Draft, as it always does this time of year. However, many were talking or asking who the Twins might take with the #1 overall pick in next year's draft. Jim Thome and Jason Kubel were added to the Disabled List. The Star Tribune has started a series in the Twins pages titled, "A mighty fall." The four-part series takes a lot at some of the areas of the team that have hurt the most.
But a funny think happened, since the calendar turned, the Twins have won five straight games. Cleveland has lost five straight games. So what are we seeing here? Is it a trend for the Twins, or a mirage?
First things first, the Twins lineup as it is currently constructed still has several weak spots. It would be difficult to believe it could be sustained over the final 100 games of the season. However, there is something to be said about the ball being played of late. There are a lot of guys playing who are trying to prove themselves. Ben Revere wants to show he's a big leaguer and his effort has been tremendous. His impact with his range and his speed on the base paths has already been seen. Jason Repko is trying to show that he can be a serviceable fourth of fifth outfielder. Alexi Casilla, who was arguably the Twins top hitter in May, is trying to show that he can be a big league regular. Rene Rivera and Drew Butera are giving max effort to show that they belong as one of them will be sent down whenever Joe Mauer returns. Anthony Swarzak is doing and saying everything right in a desperate attempt to stay in the big leagues.
That is not at all to say that all of the veterans are coasting, but those fringe players are playing with the kind of effort that we as fans expect when watching the Twins.
If those role players can get the Twins on a roll, it will be a nice spark for when the regulars do come back. Nishioka and Mauer are rehabbing in Ft. Myers. Francisco Liriano returns to the rotation tonight. Jim Thome and Jason Kubel will come back rested.
There is reason for optimism. Yes, they are still 11.5 games behind Cleveland, but the Tribe is in the type of free fall we have all been anticipating through the season's first two months. If you believe that the tigers and White Sox are the teams who will be atop the AL Central, then it is important to note that the Twins are ten games back of Detroit and 5.5 games back of Chicago. We are still five weeks or so from the All-Star break, and if the team can cut their deficit behind the Tigers to between six and eight games, it certainly is possible. We have seen that before.
I'm not certain I'm ready to say the Twins are still alive quite yet. There is still a huge mountain to climb. It's hard to imagine a team that was worst in baseball for most of the season's first two months could compete. But with 100 games left, I guess anything is still possible.
Sometimes it only takes a spark to get a fire going. The role players provided a spark. Cleveland is going through some struggles. The Twins have won five in a row, so let's see where they are in another month.
If nothing else, hopefully the improved play will remain to help keep Twins fans entertained over the final 100 games as we wait for 1st round pick Levi Michael to become the Twins starting shortstop in a few years!