About two months before the Twins ran away with the American League Central Division, it felt like they hit a make-or-break stretch of their season.
Right before the trade deadline, the Twins were swept in Kansas City. The Cleveland Guardians were within one game in the standings.
"To be honest, I didn't even remember getting swept in Kansas City," reliever Emilio Pagán said this week, a reminder of how much the divisional race changed over the last seven weeks.
The Twins are on the verge of clinching the American League Central. They could have clinched Thursday had Cleveland and Detroit both lost, but the Guardians beat the Orioles and the Tigers beat the Athletics. Instead, a team celebration could happen Friday night at Target Field, where the Twins will face the Angels.
The Twins, who largely stood pat at the trade deadline, have posted a 27-19 record since the start of August. An inconsistent offense plagued by strikeouts in clutch situations in the first half of the season was buoyed by a stream of hot hitters. It seemed like Royce Lewis, Max Kepler, Matt Wallner, Ryan Jeffers, Jorge Polanco and Michael A. Taylor took turns carrying the lineup.
It's been a banner season for the starting rotation, which leads the majors in strikeouts and owns the third-lowest ERA (3.83). The bullpen weathered struggles from since-traded Jorge López and injuries to Brock Stewart and Caleb Thielbar.
There was no magic moment when the season turned, multiple players said. No team meeting that sparked better play. No team-wide adjustment that changed their trajectory. There was a stretch in early July when the Twins had players lead their pregame hitters meeting, but a couple of players said it didn't have a major effect.
"We knew exactly what we had in this clubhouse," pitcher Pablo López said. "You had the first half where we saw flashes of the potential we had here with all the talent and resources. I think after the All-Star break, it served as a good reset point. We started the second half behind in the division. I wonder if that also helped us as a team."
After the Twins were swept in Kansas City, they went 4-1-1 over their next six series. They won their final two games in Philadelphia after they were blown out in the series opener, 13-2, which felt meaningful.
Cleveland claimed three pitchers off waivers at the end of August after it won two of three games at Target Field. The Twins maintained a five-game lead in the division, but the Guardians wanted to make a run in likely the last season with manager Terry Francona. It was only a year ago when the Guardians caught the Twins in September to earn a division title.
The Twins, less than a week after the Guardians added pitching, won two of three games in Cleveland in their last head-to-head matchup of the season. They won the first two games by a combined score of 28-9.
"As much as we don't like to talk about last year," Pagán said, "I think having gone through it as a unit — for the most part, this team is very similar as far as guys in the room — seeing where we made mistakes last year and, honestly, just the experience of going through a playoff race for the first time for a lot of our young guys, the next time you go through it, you are more equipped to handle it."
There are two primary areas where the Twins are better positioned after their collapse last September. They have more depth, which was a front office focus in the offseason, and their rookie class has provided a big jolt.
Kyle Farmer chuckled when he looked at Wallner and Edouard Julien sitting on a couch in the visiting clubhouse in Cincinnati before Monday's game. They are in a playoff race, and they were as relaxed as ever.
"The Minnesota Twins have a great farm system," Farmer said. "I think they teach them how to win at an early age in their pro career. When I was rehabbing in Class AAA, those guys win. They go out there, they win and they have a good time. When they come up here, it's just nothing different."
The Twins are averaging 5.48 runs per game following the All-Star break, up from 4.18 runs per game beforehand. Despite striking out more often, they've been better at hitting with runners in scoring position.
"It felt like in spring training, we were a pretty awesome offense," Pagán said. "It seemed like whoever was in the lineup was producing or having productive at-bats. Although spring training doesn't mean anything numbers-wise, it sets the tone for the year. You felt like the guys that were coming up, we've all seen them be productive. We knew it was coming."
The AL Central was a historically weak division this year, and the Twins took advantage. They essentially hovered between six games above .500 and two games under .500 through most of the season.
When they were swept in Kansas City, or swept by Baltimore before the All-Star break, the Twins didn't break down. They avoided any major losing streaks and pulled away, finally, in the last eight weeks.
"You started seeing everything coming together," Pablo López said. "Guys taking it day by day. Not worrying about what's going to happen tomorrow. Not thinking about what other teams are doing. Just worrying about what we could control inside this clubhouse with our preparation and discipline."