Manager Rocco Baldelli said the Twins coaches and front office knew this was going to be a tough American League Central race, but even they have to be surprised that the White Sox (27-16), Indians (26-17) and Twins (27-18) had three of the top five records in the American League through Wednesday's games.

"I think we all knew that this was coming and that we would see all five teams in this league competing, because you look around and you see the talent," said Baldelli, the 2019 AL Manager of the Year. "You see the exciting young position players that are out there, on a bunch of different teams. You see the pitching really stepping up, bullpen arms, guys coming out throwing very good stuff with velocity and really good off-speed pitches.

"And you see just the general improvement coming, in addition to what you knew you were going to see from the top of the division last year with the Indians always putting together a very competitive group and then everyone else in the division making very big improvements. You knew it was going to be really hard. I think it will continue to get even harder."

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The Twins are three games off their start last season of 30-15 through their first 45 games.

But it still is a great accomplishment, given how many injuries the club has dealt with during this 60-game campaign.

Now the Twins have two off days to get ready for their biggest stretch of the season with three games against Cleveland at Target Field starting Friday and then four games against Chicago at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The team is hoping to get starter Jake Odorizzi and right fielder Max Kepler back healthy soon, but the fact is this was always going to be part of such a condensed season and Baldelli has been happy with the way several players have stepped up.

"It has been a year where we knew injuries were going to be a part of what was going on and maybe even a big part of what was going on. We're seeing it throughout baseball, we have not been immune," he said. "We have dealt with a lot of different physical issues from a lot of different guys, but it hasn't held back our group. We knew we were going to have to call upon a lot of different names and a lot of different spots to get us where we needed to be, and that's what we're doing right now.

"It's not going to be always easy or smooth, but our guys are confident that no matter who we put out there, we'll continue to play good baseball."

Some of the best contributions this season have come from role players.

Willians Astudillo is hitting .375 with two RBI and three runs scored in five games. Catcher Ryan Jeffers has filled in because of injuries to Alex Avila and Mitch Garver and is hitting .286 in 17 games. And maybe the biggest pitching surprise has been Matt Wisler, the 27-year-old reliever, with a 0.92 ERA over 19⅔ innings with 24 strikeouts.

Winning a new way

This isn't the same power-hitting squad of last season, when the Twins hit 87 homers through 45 games compared to 63 this season, but they are still winning.

"It has been very different, a different brand of baseball. But that being said, I think it says a lot about the types of players we have who can adjust to that, who can play a different kind of game," Baldelli said. "And guys that have grown accustomed to going out there and having success in some ways have found ways to go out there and have success in other ways.

"I'll also give our pitchers a nice pat on the back, too. They have been throwing the ball fantastic from beginning to end — rotation, bullpen, we dealt with some guys missing some time as well. Everyone that has come in has continued to do good, good work."

Sano, Cruz hot

One reason the Twins are going to continue to be one of the World Series favorites is the way Miguel Sano and Nelson Cruz are hitting in the middle of the lineup.

The 40-year-old Cruz entered Wednesday tied for the MLB lead with 15 homers and led all of baseball with a .685 slugging percentage.

Sano, 27, has 10 homers, finding his rhythm after a slow start. He's hitting .313 with six homers, nine doubles and 14 RBI in his past 22 games.

On top of that, Sano has been better than expected playing defense after a position switch to first base, and all of this has come after he signed a three-year, $30 million contract in the offseason.

Baldelli said Sano's ability to recover from a tough start has been impressive and Cruz, 13 years older than Sano, has helped.

"Miggy started out the year obviously dealing with COVID, and coming in and having to start your year with that is a very, very difficult thing. He came back, he worked his way in, took a little time to get settled and get his timing in very difficult circumstances, and has put together as good of an offensive year as anyone in baseball," Baldelli said. "Very, very impressive. The adjustment making that Miguel has done — not just this year but even last year when dealing with things that could get people off track — he has made adjustments, he has gotten to a great spot and of course he has the incredible talent and ability. Once he finds himself, gets his timing, swing feels good and it all comes together, it is really fun to watch.

"If there is a player that you can point to that is as good of an influence and almost a father figure in some ways, I think Nelson Cruz is that guy. Nelson brings that every day. Sets an example for everyone. I think a lot of people look to him, even the guys who don't necessarily need it as much, look to him as a rock of stability and a guy that they continually learn from each and every day."

Schedule sprint

Entering Wednesday, the Twins had played the most games in baseball, including 13 games in the past 11 days.

Baldelli, who is 128-79 (. 618) in his managerial career, believes the team will be able to keep its focus all the way through this one-of-a-kind season.

"In baseball we get used to doing anything that we have to do," he said. "We get used to making adjustments and changes. We get used to sacrificing, we get used to doing what we must to put our players in position to go out there, play well, be comfortable and have the best possible year they can. That's what we're going to try to do, regardless. We knew the circumstances this year would be as challenging as anything we have ever seen in the game. It has played out like that. But one thing we don't do is we don't make any excuses, we continue to lock in, we focus on what we have to on that given day and we go out and try to win a game."

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Sunday. •