Through 63 games last season, the Twins were 20-43 and already 15 games back in the AL Central. They had the worst record in the American League and had been outscored by 100 runs.
And while there was belief within the organization that those numbers were not representative of the team, it’s hard to believe nearly the same squad has posted a 34-29 record through the same number of games this season, the fourth-best record in the league.
On Thursday it was Jose Berrios who grinded through eight innings, allowing only two runs on five hits with a walk, to help the Twins to a 6-2 victory over Seattle at Target Field.
Manager Paul Molitor talked about how important Berrios’ performance was, with the Twins set to play host to Cleveland — two games behind them in second place in the Central — for four games in three days.
“Jose going out there and really giving us a solid outing, getting through eight innings, really helps your bullpen a lot,” he said. “Offensively, Esco [Eduardo Escobar] continues his little hot run here. I don’t know if anybody has jumped that many points [in batting average] in June, but it has been nice to watch him contribute. And then [Chris] Gimenez had a big day for us, too, with a couple home runs.”
The Twins are now 6-1 in games Berrios has started since being called up May 11 and, along with Ervin Santana, has given the top of the rotation some stability, which is huge because of the shoulder injuries to Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago.
“[Berrios] had a couple hiccups, a leadoff walk a couple times where command kind of blocked his progress a little bit,” Molitor said. “I know three of the five hits were on 3-1 counts, so we just keep giving those reminders about trying to pitch ahead.
“He was good. We were trying to figure out how far we could take him and given the cushion, while it wasn’t huge, it was enough to get him back out there and get him through eight.”
When Molitor was asked if he’d ever seen such a turnaround in one season — Berrios posted a 3-7 record last season with a 8.02 ERA and now stands 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA — he said those improvements are common with young players.
“I think you can see position players and pitchers, the first and second time around, sometimes it takes them awhile to get comfortable and trust what they’re able to do up here,” he said. “We all never really lost hope that he was going to figure it out and he’s starting to put together a pretty good run.”
Berrios said his turnaround started with his mental approach to the game.
“It all started with my mental confidence and then working on a whole lot of different things,” he said through his translator. “But I think my mental side of the game is what changed.”
The Twins have had issues winning at home this season. Their victory Thursday moved them to 14-20, compared to 20-9 on the road (second best in the AL to the Astros). They have had trouble creating momentum at Target Field, where their longest winning streak this season is three games, from the first series of the year against Kansas City. Since then they haven’t won more than two in a row, and that has only happened twice.
Maybe that can change against Cleveland.
“Momentum is always a little bit tough to predict where it’s going to go,” Molitor said. “It’ll be fun to play the Indians. As the defending American League champions it’s relatively early, but [we’re looking forward to] playing four times in three days, summertime, good weather, and hopefully some good baseball.”
Home runs aplenty
The Twins hit 11 home runs in four games against the Mariners. Gimenez hit two and Escobar connected for his seventh homer of the season Thursday.
They now have 46 homers in 34 home games, an average of 1.4 per game — up from last season when they hit 98 homers in 81 home games, an average of 1.2.
Molitor said the heat has helped.
“Last year I actually thought we saw at times where it carried pretty good,” he said. “It’s kind of hit and miss here, depending on the day. Obviously with the warm weather and the wind blowing out the last couple of days, the ball has been carrying really well. So I think the guys know if they hit it, they have a good chance.”
He said Gimenez’s two homers — which boosted the Twins’ lead from 2-0 to 5-0 in the first inning and from 5-1 to 6-1 in the third — were huge in defeating the Mariners.
“It’s a big gap between two and five,” Molitor said. “Even the [second] one, I thought, was big as far as momentum. They came back and put another run on the board and for him to come back and answer with one, I thought both were very critical for how the game progressed.”
With the second-place team in the AL Central coming to town Friday, it’s clear this is a much different season compared to last year for the Twins. It’ll be interesting to see if they can start consistently winning at home to widen their division lead.
• Molitor talked about the decision to rest Joe Mauer, which rankles fans but he says is totally necessary. “Joe has been playing a lot, and we’re just trying to pick our spots with him. A day game after a night game after a long West Coast trip, a lefthander on the mound … [there were] a lot of reasons to sit him down and get him rest for the weekend.”
• The last time the Twins had an All-Star voted in by the fans was Mauer back in 2013, as a catcher. But now it looks like they’ll get another one in Miguel Sano, who is leading AL third baseman as of Thursday with 1,010,060 votes, giving him over a 300,000 vote cushion on the Indians’ Jose Ramirez in second place. … Last season through 59 games, Sano was hitting .239 with 14 homers, 36 RBI and 32 runs scored. This year he’s hitting .297 with 16 homers, 48 RBI and 41 runs scored.
• Escobar, whose batting average has jumped from .208 on June 2 to .295 after going 3-for-4 on Thursday, including his seventh homer of the season — giving him more homers than in all of 2016, when he hit six. His career high is 12, set in 2015.
• Gimenez is also getting close to a career high in homers, after hitting two Thursday to give him three for the season. Last year in Cleveland he hit four homers in 68 games, and his career high is five, set in Texas in 2015.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday, at 2 p.m. on Friday and at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. E-mail: email@example.com