Paul Molitor has done one of the best managing jobs in recent memory around here, taking the Twins, a team many baseball observers predicted would finish last in the AL Central, from four consecutive 90-loss seasons to having a great shot at grabbing a wild-card spot and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
So how does the first-year manager feel as he nears the end of the regular season?
"We're obviously happy that the new format with the two wild cards has given us a chance as we go into the last three weeks of the season," Molitor said. "I'm proud of how this team has bounced back from adversity along the way, everything from our poor start to a couple of times during the year when things started to slip away from us a little bit. We have always found ways to get back on track."
They will look to bounce back this weekend after losing their third game in a row Thursday night, blowing a five-run lead in an 11-8 loss to the Angels. Fortunately for the Twins, they have only dropped a half-game back in the wild-card standings over the losing streak, with Houston getting swept by Texas.
While the early focus of the season was on Brian Dozier's offensive performance, and lately it has been that of rookie Miguel Sano and even Eduardo Escobar, Molitor credited the steady performance of his pitching staff for the team's improved play this year.
"The biggest area we thought we needed to turn around to be competitive was going to be how we pitched, our starters," he said. "There have been a couple times when there has been little lapses, but for the most part we've been pleased. Whoever we've run out there has done a good job.
"The bullpen has changed shape a little bit, everything from [Glen] Perkins' injury to some of the acquisitions we've made [Kevin Jepsen, Neal Cotts]. They have been good. We had to overwork them at different times of the year, but they've stayed strong. I think overall our pitching has been more than respectable, and that's the reason we have a chance."
The Twins had the worst ERA in the American League last year at 4.57; after Thursday's loss this year's mark is at 4.20, only 12th.
To make the playoffs, Molitor knows he will have to rely on his best pitchers.
"I don't think it takes a genius to realize there are certain guys that are pitching more consistently and better than others and we're going to try to get the most that we can out of them down the stretch," he said. "Ervin [Santana] is pitching well, [Kyle] Gibson is pitching well, for the most part [Tommy] Milone has been good, [Tyler] Duffey has been good but we have to be a little careful with him. And with Phil [Hughes] and Mike [Pelfrey], they are still in there. They'll get their turns but it might not be as consistently."
Sano changed season
Molitor acknowledged that Sano, who made his debut July 2 after getting promoted from Class AA Chattanooga, has made a big difference. He is hitting .281 with 16 home runs, 47 RBI and 38 runs.
"He has been a big plus, our team has obviously become a lot better as he has emerged after his call-up," Molitor said. "We weren't sure what to expect. Everyone thought his hitting was ahead of his fielding, and that has proved to be correct.
"There has been a lot of production. The strikeouts are high, but you get a fair return between the power and the RBI and the on-base percentage and everything else he has done so well. He has changed how our team looks, how other teams have to pitch us, and I can't say we'd be in the same spot without the fact that he has come up there and been a really valuable addition."
Still Sano is only one of the late-season surprises. An unheralded star has been Jepsen, who had converted his first seven save opportunities in place of the injured Perkins before blowing the save against Detroit on Wednesday night.
"He wasn't one of the bigger names that exchanged teams at the break, but our guys believed he could be a valuable guy in terms of experience, a righthanded power arm late in the games. I don't think anyone could have imagined the fact that we were going to need him to be our closer here.
"But he has stepped up. He hasn't shied away from any situations. He has been resilient. I have been able to use him in back-to-back-to-back games."
Overall, Molitor said this season has been great for him. He retired as a player 17 years ago, but it wasn't until the Twins position opened up last year that he finally decided to take on managing.
"It has been perfect timing for me as far as getting an opportunity to do this," Molitor said. "I've always been someone that went year to year and to see where the game would take me. I have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things, but I'm grateful to the Pohlads, Terry [Ryan] for bringing me on board. Between myself and my coaches, I think we have all really enjoyed this year, primarily because the players have been a lot of fun to work with and they've given us everything they have."
• Good news for Timberwolves fans: Nemanja Bjelica, a 2010 draft pick who signed earlier this year, is playing in the FIBA Eurobasket tournament and has taken Serbia to the semifinals against Lithuania on Friday. In seven games, the 6-10 Bjelica has averaged 14.7 points on 61.9 percent shooting, including 38.1 percent shooting from three-point range. He has also averaged 7.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. In the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic he scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.
• Michael Cuddyer has returned to the Mets lineup after missing a month because of wrist tendinitis, and he has a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 with the Twins if the Mets win the NL East, which they should do. He is hitting .261 with a .316 on-base percentage and has 10 home runs 16 doubles, 38 RBI and 44 runs in 104 games this year.
• Former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams got a number of snaps in the Ravens' loss at Denver on Sunday. He made one reception for 15 yards and was targeted on one other throw.
• Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia's son, Mario, received a nice honor when he was named an alternate captain this year at Notre Dame. The Irish captain for the second year in a row is Steven Fogarty, who is the fourth Edina High School product to captain the team since 2001, following Anders Lee (2012-13), Ryan Thang (2009-10) and Dan Carlson (2000-01).
• When the Gophers play Kent State on Saturday, the Golden Flashes will have kicker April Goss on the sideline. Last week she became the second woman to score a point in a college football game, when she made an extra point against Delaware State.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org