The Twins’ chartered flight soared high above Detroit on Monday, but it didn’t land there. For a change.
“I hope we don’t play the Tigers for awhile,” General Manager Terry Ryan joked on the eve of the Twins’ flight to Pittsburgh. “We need a little break from Detroit.”
They get one, but it won’t last long. No intradivision rivalry is ever on hold for long in Major League Baseball these days, considering each team plays 19 games per season against its four division brothers. And in the Twins’ case, after a 2-7 start against the Tigers, after being outscored 56-23 in three mostly dispiriting series, they can’t be blamed for enjoying eight Tiger-free weeks until a four-game set at Target Field in July.
But Tigers aside, the Twins say they have discovered something thrilling during an unusually Central-heavy first six weeks to the season: They can compete.
“I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that our thoughts about not being afraid of anybody are pretty accurate,” manager Paul Molitor said, and his confidence is borne out by the standings. The Twins, having now visited and entertained each of their Central brethren, are 12-7 against Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City, and have outscored that trio, 96-73.
“How you play these teams the first 28 games within your division, compared to what it’s going to be like when you get to July, August, September — we know things change,” Molitor said. “But for now, we’ve been able to develop confidence in the fact that we can play with anybody, so that’s a good thing.”
Perhaps an unexpected one, too; as Ryan says, “People are surprised at how much success we’re having, I know that.”
Maybe so. At least one national baseball columnist, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, assured his audience in March that “the only guarantee in this division is the Minnesota Twins at the bottom. … They’re at least a year away.”
The season isn’t quite one-fourth over, and the Twins close the season with 25 division games among their final 32. So there is still plenty of time, of course, for that projection to come true — especially since the AL Central may be living up to some preseason expectations as the toughest in the majors.
Entering Monday, the AL Central is the only division with more than two teams at .500 or better; it has four. The Central’s overall winning percentage of .538 is easily MLB’s best; the NL Central, at .505, is the only other divison above break-even.
ESPN baseball columnist Buster Olney, citing “the extraordinary influx of talent into the division,” observed before camps opened that “you can make a strong case that the AL Central is now baseball’s best, with all of its Cy Young Award-caliber pitchers (Corey Kluber, David Price, Chris Sale, etc.) to its elite hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez) to the great bullpens of the Royals and Indians.”
Some of the Twins say they see the same — but at 14-14 in the division, believe they measure up, too.
“There are some really good teams in the Central, top to bottom,” Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “You have the White Sox and Indians, it seems like any moment, they can turn it around — they have the pitching to do that. And the Royals and Tigers, we’re just facing a lot of good pitching all the time.”
Added Ryan, “The AL Central is pretty deep. It took the Indians a little time to get going, but they’re starting to find their way. It’s no secret that their pitching is starting to settle in.”
And the Royals, building upon a memorable World Series run, impress him, too. “They’ve got a good bullpen, and they’ve got some guys you don’t hear much about, but they’re really good,” Ryan said. “Their center fielder [Lorenzo Cain], he’s almost unbelievable. We can’t get him out. I would suspect you’ll see quite a few from that roster in the All-Star Game.”
Some from Detroit, too, of course. And the Tigers, who own the best intradivision record at 18-10, say playing Central teams is hardening them for the pennant race ahead. “It’s fun this way. You get to know the teams in this division really well,” said Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler. “It makes it tougher because we know each other so well. It becomes more about execution.”
The Twins say their standing after playing more than one-third of their AL Central games gives them assurance that they’ll be part of the division race far longer than they have in the past four seasons.
“We can tell it’s going to be a fun season. It seems like it’s a season when we’re going to be playing meaningful games in September,” Plouffe said. “I’m excited, very excited.”