This Twins season is one of the most surprising in franchise history — joining their World Series-winning campaigns of 1987 and 1991 and the stretch of division winners under Ron Gardenhire.

The Twins might have looked overmatched in the ALDS in New York on Friday and Saturday, but on Monday they will play host their first playoff game since 2010, a moment that has also come with a 65% increase in television viewership on Fox Sports North this season and the second-largest attendance increase in Major League Baseball this season with 334,955 more fans going to Target Field than in 2018.

Even if the Twins lose this series in three games, the fact is that they are in prime position to contend for years.

It took big improvements from almost every player from their performance in 2018 to make this happen. And the good news for the Twins is many of those players are not only under contract for next season but for the next decade.

One of the biggest improvements was Max Kepler. He hit .224 in 2018 with 20 home runs, 58 RBI and 80 runs scored in 156 games. He played 18 fewer games this season but hit .252 with 36 homers, 90 RBI and 98 runs scored — every one of those stats was a career high.

The difference in the play of Miguel Sano was night and day. He hit .199 in 2018 and played in only 71 games, hitting a career-low 13 homers, with 41 RBI and 32 runs scored. This season he hit .247, played in 105 games and set career highs in home runs (34), RBI (79) and runs scored (76).

Jorge Polanco had to deal with an 81-game suspension in 2018 and finished the year hitting .288 with six homers, 42 RBI and 38 runs scored in 77 games. This year he set career highs with 22 homers, 79 RBI, 40 doubles, 107 runs scored and hit .295 to become one of the best all-around offensive players in the American League.

Mitch Garver might have been the biggest surprise of all. He hit .268 last season over 102 games but had just seven home runs and 45 RBI. This year he hit 31 homers, drove in 67 and scored 70 runs, all easily career marks for the Twins backstop.

One player who saw his average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage drop from last season was Eddie Rosario, but he also hit a career-high 32 home runs, drove in a career-high 109 runs compared to 77 last year and scored four more runs than in 2018.

And while Byron Buxton is injured, he also had a huge bounce-back season, posting career highs with a .262 batting average and 30 doubles in just 87 games after hitting .156 in 28 games in 2018. He also had 10 homers after hitting none last year.

The Twins had a historic season, but it would have been a repeat of 2018 if they hadn’t made so many improvements.

Gophers off to historic start

The Gophers are 5-0 after their 40-17 home victory over Illinois on Saturday. That improbable start shows that coach P.J. Fleck is accomplishing what he said he would here.

This team needed some luck and big plays to escape nonconference play 3-0, but the past two weeks Gophers have taken care of business in the Big Ten.

Tanner Morgan overcame a slow start Saturday to throw three touchdown passes, two in the second half.

And Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks all of a sudden look like the dynamic duo they were before injuries forced both to the sidelines last year. Smith gained 211 yards on 24 carries and Brooks had 111 yards on 16 carries.

The simple fact is that since Murray Warmath’s club won the national championship in 1960, only three Gophers teams have started the season 5-0. Glen Mason’s clubs did it in back-to-back seasons in 2003 and 2004.

The 2003 team might have been the Gophers’ best in the past four decades. It started 6-0, finished 10-3 and beat Oregon 31-30 in the Sun Bowl. The 2004 club didn’t finish strong, going 1-5 to end the regular season before topping Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl.

John Gutekunst started 5-0 in 1987, but the Gophers went 1-5 down the stretch and didn’t get to play in a bowl.

So Fleck and this young Gophers squad are in rare territory. If they can find a way to top Nebraska next Saturday, a prime-time matchup at home, they will be bowl-eligible before taking a loss.

Thielen ready to see response

Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has been in the news all week after the disappointing 16-6 loss at Chicago last week.

The Minnesota State Mankato and Detroit Lakes High School product said this team will learn a lot about itself when it faces the Giants in New York on Sunday.

“It’ll be a good test for us as a team and it will really show what kind of people we have on this team coming off of a tough loss,” Thielen said. “How are we going to use the frustration? Are we going to use it as a positive and stay positive this week or are we going to go down in the dumps?

“It’s a great opportunity to see what kind of guys we have in this locker room. I think I have a good idea of what that response will be because we have so many great guys in this locker room, but we have to go out and do it.”

JOTTINGS

• Kirk Cousins being sacked six times in the Bears game means that he has taken eight sacks on the season, but it is nothing compared to last season, when he was sacked 13 times in four games.

 

• Vikings safety Harrison Smith on Giants rookie quarterback sensation Daniel Jones: “He kind of has escapability aspect to him, especially in that Tampa game. He has a big arm. He’s obviously a young guy, but he has done some really good stuff for them.”

 

• Even though Dalvin Cook was held to 35 yards on 14 rushes last week, he still has 410 rushing yards, well ahead of last year when, after four games, he had only 187 rushing yards. ... Pro Football Focus this week said Cook ranks sixth in forced missed tackles per carry (0.23) and fourth in yards after contact per run (3.6).

 

• The Timberwolves have to feel good that Robert Covington is healthy. When he played last year the club went 12-10 and he averaged 14.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. With Philadelphia last year he averaged 11.3 points and 5.2 rebounds. He is under contract for three more seasons.

 

• Last November, the Twins traded reliever Nick Anderson to Miami for Brian Schales, who hit .188 this year in the minors. Anderson, who graduated from Brainerd High School, then got traded to Tampa Bay and is now one of the best relievers in baseball. He struck out 110 batters over 65 innings this year. In the American League wild-card game win over Oakland, he faced five batters and struck out four.

 

• Luis Arraez hit .334 this season, the best average ever for a Twins rookie with at least 300 at-bats. Tony Oliva hit .323 in his rookie season. The Twins could sure use his bat in the playoffs.

 

• Former Vikings offensive lineman Mike Remmers will be at right tackle for the Giants.