Even an unsightly loss on Sunday in Cleveland shouldn’t obscure what the Twins have accomplished in the last month.
They’ve made themselves watchable thanks to three leaders who have could have worked elsewhere but chose to honor their organizational roots.
Paul Molitor is a St. Paul native who returned to the Twins near the end of his career and worked a variety of jobs in the organization before becoming manager. Players have credited his calm voice with helping them overcome a 1-6 start and win 17 of 25 since.
Glen Perkins grew up and lives in Minnesota, and has twice signed with the Twins when he could have made more money on the open market. He is the rare modern All-Star closer happy to record outs in the eighth inning.
Torii Hunter left the Twins after the 2007 season when the Twins were uninterested in re-signing him at a competitive rate. He returned this winter because he wanted to finish his career where he started and thought he saw the makings of a winner in need of a leader.
The 2015 Twins are waiting on their best prospects, are average to mediocre in almost every statistical category and have fielded a less-than-impressive rotation. They are exceptional only in the esoteric category of atmosphere. They throw clubhouse dance parties after victories and shrug off losses.
“They really do come to the ballpark expecting to win,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said from Cleveland. “With guys like Torii in there, they don’t get down when we lose. Torii keeps saying, ‘We’re having fun, we’ve got the music going, everybody wants to win because it’s so much fun after the game when we do win.’ That’s part of gaining a winning environment. I truly believe now that these guys look at each other after someone makes a mistake and want to pick each other up.”
Molitor has used Tom Kelly as his managing mentor. “TK was always good at saying, ‘Don’t get too high when you win or too low when you lose,’ ” Antony said. “Paul doesn’t let frustration show. If we lose, as soon as the game is over he’s tinkering with the next day’s lineup.”
The Twins are 18-14. They hold the fifth-best record in the American League and the eighth-best record in baseball. And they are winning without the players who were supposed to make the biggest difference this year.
Top prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios have not made it to the big leagues. Ervin Santana, the richest free-agent signing in Twins history, is suspended for the first half of the season. Ricky Nolasco, the second-richest free-agent signing in Twins history, has again proved neither durable nor effective.
Joe Mauer, owner of the richest contract in Twins history, has yet to hit a home run, and his current on-base-plus-slugging percentage is identical to the worst full-season OPS in his career — .729, which is what it was after his disastrous 2011 season.
This team isn’t particularly fast or powerful. The starting pitchers have been average at best as a group. How is this team winning?
Hunter has brought life to the clubhouse, which has translated to increased gamesmanship and competitiveness on the field. Molitor has shown a knack for benching slumping players and seeing them improve immediately upon return. Perkins has performed to his All-Star standards while leading a surprisingly effective bullpen.
“You just talked about the leaders on this club,” Antony said. “Then there’s Phil Hughes. He pitched here last year and said, ‘I know this team is going to be good. I like it here, I want be in Minnesota.’ He told his agent, ‘I don’t want to play anywhere else.’ Then you have Perkins giving us a hometown discount, and Torii saying he wants to win here.”
We’ve been waiting for a bunch of youngsters to save the Twins, but this season it’s been one guy in his early 30s, one guy about to turn 40 and one guy in his 50s who have made the difference.