CLEVELAND – The Twins left Detroit on Sunday after a four-game sweep of the Tigers focusing on an important topic — fantasy football.
But while “team owners” screamed at televisions in the visitors’ clubhouse at Comerica Park, third baseman Eduardo Escobar, seated at a table, wore a big grin for another reason.
The Twins have nearly crossed the goal line themselves.
“It’s so exciting,” Escobar said. “I’ve waited for this. This year has been an unbelievable year for the Twins.”
Finally, from a team battling for an American League wild-card spot, acknowledgment they are nearly there — nearly back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
On the verge of being the first team to lose 100 games and make the playoffs the following season.
As they enter their final six games with a five-game lead for the second AL wild card, the Twins continue to mirror the approach of their even-keeled manager, Paul Molitor: Don’t let a bad loss leak into the next game.
The Twins have not lost more than four consecutive games all season. While it doesn’t shield them from a collapse over what can be a topsy-turvy final week, it has been a trait that has served them well.
So they let down their guard a bit Sunday, trash-talking about fantasy football after a 10-4 victory of the Tigers. The annual rookies-in-costumes road trip commenced, featuring 6-foot-10 Aaron Slegers in a Kristaps Porzingis New York Knicks uniform, and Mitch Garver, who attended the University of New Mexico, dressed up as the Lobos mascot. A large golf outing took place Monday.
Bouncing back after Yankees series
On Tuesday, they start a three-game series against the AL Central champion Indians — who are 16 games ahead of the Twins after winning a remarkable 29 of 31 games — in a stadium, Progressive Field, where the Twins are 5-1 this season.
“We have been working hard all year,” Escobar said. “The most important thing is that everyone is together. It’s important when the team is together no matter what happens.”
After being swept by the Yankees last week, the Twins’ lead in the wild-card race dwindled to 1½ games over the Angels. But Los Angeles then got swept by the Indians themselves and lost two of the three to the Astros, while the Twins took care of a Tigers team with a struggling bullpen. With the Angels losing again Monday to the White Sox, the Twins can clinch a playoff spot Tuesday if they win and Los Angeles loses at Chicago.
“This has been a strong attribute that we have been able to do that,” Molitor said. “The New York series was deflating in a lot of ways, going in there and understanding you were playing against a team were trying to catch, and it didn’t go our way for three games.
“Coming to Detroit, not being presumptuous about the Tigers and some of the things they are dealing with, we had to come here and pitch well and hit well and play good defense. That’s been a consistent thing.”
Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer, was in the Indians front office until the Twins hired him last fall. He could see his new team clinch a playoff spot against his old team this week. Falvey pointed out that, during his tenure in Cleveland, every time the Indians clinched was on the road. In fact, his first clinching experience was at Target Field in 2013.
Now Falvey could celebrate a wild-card berth in front of his old bosses after a surge by his rebuilding team, which has seen resurgent performances by several players, especially in the second half of the season.
It has happened with Escobar filling in for the injured Miguel Sano at third base. The Twins are 20-15 since the All-Star slugger last played on Aug. 19. They are batting .271 since then, with an .836 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“One of the many lessons I learned here in Cleveland was that you shouldn’t put limitations on a group of players who bond together on a mission to do something special,” Falvey said. “Over the course of each season a culture forms in every clubhouse and ours has been fun to watch. I’ve used the word resilient a few times to describe our guys and I continue to believe that’s the best word to use.”
The manager remains uncomfortable, but that’s how managers are.
“Not that you want to add pressure, but it’s comfortable when you don a T-shirt and a hat and they tell you are going to play next week,” Molitor said. “That would be the moment I think we are all trying to get to but we are not there yet.”
The players dug in at the nonwaiver trade deadline, when All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler was traded to Washington. Molitor, before an Aug. 1 game at San Diego — the day after Kintzler was dealt — wrote “No retreat, no surrender” on a whiteboard in the clubhouse.
It was early August when Joe Mauer, one of baseball’s hottest hitters since, told reporters, “We’re trying to do something special here,” which was met with puzzled looks.
But now the Twins are a week away from making it happen.
Special? Possibly, given where they have come from.
“[Five] games up with six to play,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Which is the first time in my career I’ve ever had that this late in a season. Everything is in our favor, the driver’s seat, which is really fun.”