HOUSTON – If the final 6½ weeks of the season are going to mean anything for the Twins, if they are going to be more than just another grim march into oblivion, maybe Ron Gardenhire has come up with a rallying cry for it.
“Hopefully, this can be a good finish to a season,” the Twins manager said after Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over the Astros, “and we can come on and irritate the living fire out of some people.”
Peskiness may be all they have left now, but annoying is better than anonymous. The Twins wrapped up a 3-4 road trip Wednesday, not awful considering they played four games in Oakland, and now step directly into where they have always wanted to be: a pennant race.
Too bad it’s in a spoiler role. But the Twins, on pace to finish 74-88 after three consecutive seasons of at least 96 losses and desperate to remain somehow relevant in September, might play a decisive role in determining who makes the playoffs — and more importantly, they appear more equipped to do it every day.
Beginning Friday, 32 of their final 43 games will be against their AL Central brethren, and 27 of them are against the Royals, Tigers and Indians, all within five games of the postseason. Throw in a pair of four-game series against the AL East-leading Orioles and wild-card-leading Angels, and the Twins, with 26 home games and only 17 left on the road, are in position to make some news.
Better yet for the fans at Target Field: They are a new bunch of Twins, too. Just in the course of this road trip, the Twins added Trevor May and Tommy Milone to the pitching staff and jettisoned Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia. Danny Santana, who had four hits Wednesday, looks like a fixture atop the lineup for, oh, about the next decade, and Kennys Vargas, who drove in two runs to make it 3-0 with a clutch bases-loaded hit, is learning something new every day.
“We’re getting some younger people in here, and we’re moving a few people around. That’s exciting,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got some younger pitchers, and we’re going to get [Ricky] Nolasco back, who we were counting on for our future.”
This season was always pegged as a transitional one, especially once Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton suffered major injuries, so clearing a few veteran contracts and putting a few youngsters in place is still a worthwhile step forward, even if it tests fans’ patience. Now that a few parts of the future have arrived, that tolerance should gradually return. Because as the Astros demonstrate, progress with kids is better than backsliding with veterans.
Of course, a few parts of the Twins’ seemingly long-ago division-championship past still chip in occasionally. Joe Mauer remained hotter than the 95-degree Texas sunshine just outside Minute Maid Park on Wednesday, collecting his career 1,500th hit in the first inning and chipping in a home run in the sixth, while Glen Perkins spun a routine ninth inning to reach 30 saves for the second year in a row.
Mauer, in particular, has been a heartening presence; after a slump-ridden half-season and an injury interruption, his contributions feel like a substantial bonus. He is on a 15-game hitting streak that spans his stint on the disabled list, his average at .373 over that span.
“It’s great to have him back. People are on him right now, but gosh, he’s got a hitting streak, he’s hitting .400 for the last month and a half that he’s played, he looks healthy,” said Kyle Gibson (11-9), who shut out Houston until the eighth inning. “He looks like he’s going good, and that’s awesome.”
He feels good, too. Mauer said he feels confident he can handle the soreness that his oblique injury still imparts, even after an all-out dive to spear a line drive at first Wednesday. Hitting home runs, after a drought of 216 plate appearances extending back to May 3, is a nice painkiller, too, especially when they break up a scoreless tie.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Mauer grimaced at that stat. “[Houston starter Brett Oberholtzer] went away from me and I was able to drive the ball to left field in my first at-bat. I was looking early middle-in [in the sixth inning], missed a couple of them, then had two strikes. I didn’t try to do too much, and he threw me middle-in. So that was good.”
The Twins will be good again someday, too, if Vargas’ big hit, Gibson’s shutout stuff and Santana’s four-hit day are any indication. Maybe the future really is getting closer.