The Twins' 7-6 victory over Kansas City on Thursday was a fine example of what they are facing in a tougher-than-anticipated AL Central Division.

The Royals took a 4-0 lead on Chris Paddack, hitting two home runs that sailed over the pontoon-shaped deck in right and into the plaza.

The Twins rallied behind a bases-loaded triple by Carlos Correa to take a 7-4 lead. Then they watched that lead nearly disappear in the ninth as Bobby Witt Jr. drove in two runs before Kansas City's comeback stalled.

It enabled the Twins to take three of four games in the series, which is significant since it came against a team they trail in the standings. But this is the best Kansas City team since the 2015 squad won the World Series. The Royals are athletic and have solid pitching. The three Twins victories in the series were by one, two and one run. The Royals are no longer slouches.

With one third of the season complete, the Twins might be facing an insurmountable challenge to catch a Cleveland team that is a little better than expected or a Royals team that is much better than expected.

The Twins picked the wrong offseason to inadequately replace a key starter. The timing of Royce Lewis' torn quad could not have been worse. Matt Wallner picked the wrong time to become Joey Gallo. This is the wrong year to start 7-13.

The last time the AL Central had three teams at or above .500 over a 162-game season was 2016, when Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City did so while the Twins went 59-103. Cleveland and Kansas City currently are playing .600 ball while the Twins are 31-25.

"Every day feels like a dogfight," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "It feels like there's never going to be an easy day at the ballpark when you show up, in any way shape or form.

"It's tough to score runs. Teams are pitching really, really well right now. So, yeah, it's going to be a real challenge."

Witt might be the best player in the division. Royals righthander Seth Lugo has finally marshalled his 14 different pitches — OK, it's actually eight — into an arsenal he can win with. Salvador Perez loves blasting home runs at Target Field.

Cleveland's Steven Kwan, currently injured, is the best pure hitter in the division. José Ramírez continues to be a pain in the Twins' side. The Guardians bullpen is excellent. And Cleveland is 5-0 against the Twins.

Both Cleveland and Kansas City are in the top five in baseball in runs scored. The Twins are in the middle of the pack. It's been difficult for Baldelli to craft a lineup. He thought he had a leadoff hitter in Edouard Julien, who is batting near .200. Baldelli's best option at the No. 3 or cleanup spots might be the same guy, and he hasn't played since the first game of the season.

That guy, Lewis, is on a rehabilitation assignment at Class AAA St. Paul and is nearing a return to the team after straining a quadriceps on Opening Day. He would be in the conversation for being the best player in the division if not for two ACL injuries before the quad tear. He has played in only 71 major league games and 189 overall since the start of the 2022 season. In addition to being their best player, he is their spiritual leader. But it doesn't matter if he is not on the field.

And Lewis might not be enough to pull the Twins to the top of the standings. Julien is batting .207. Byron Buxton is back patrolling the outfield but hasn't taken off offensively. Only two players have an OPS over .800. Key relievers are banged up. And Pablo López, one of the top 20 starters in baseball entering the season, has been the least effective member of the rotation. And if they have to reach down to St. Paul for rotation help, it might lead to the return of Randy Dobnak. That would be a great comeback story but also reveal the lack of rotation depth in the organization.

Thursday's victory pulled the flawed Twins within three games of the Royals and six games of the Guardians. Memorial Day historically is a key checkpoint on the season, and the team picked by most to win the AL Central reached that point in third place. There's plenty of time to make up the difference. But the Twins have to prove they have a roster that can do it.