Torii Hunter roamed the Twins clubhouse Wednesday afternoon wearing a T-shirt with the word “Septober” emblazoned across the front.
The fictional month is the outfielder’s homage to the critical period in every Major League season when games become extra important and the difference between making the playoffs and heading home for the offseason seems paper-thin.
“In Septober, there are some great matchups,” Hunter said. “You’ve got those teams that are two games out or teams that are in first place and trying to keep that first place. It’s a bullfight.”
The Twins jump back into that ring Thursday when the Los Angeles Angels come to town for a four-game series. The Angels are nipping at the Twins’ heels in pursuit of the second wild-card playoff spot — two games behind them after both teams lost Wednesday.
The beauty of a playoff chase is that every series feels make-or-break, every mistake gets magnified.
How many times in the past six weeks have we made the declaration, “This is a huge series for the Twins!”?
Guess what? This is a huge series starting Thursday.
“I wouldn’t say that it makes us amped up or do anything different, but we’re not naive,” said Kyle Gibson, Saturday’s scheduled starting pitcher. “We know that these games are pretty big.”
The Twins are 1½ games behind Houston in the wild-card standings, so they’re busy looking up, not down. But this series provides them an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Angels, who remain a threat because of two guys in particular, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
If the Twins can limit the impact of those two sluggers, they will have a good chance to keep pace or gain ground on teams they’re chasing in the standings.
Allow Trout and Pujols to put on a power display, and their slope will become even more slippery the final few weeks.
Of course, Septober tension beats the pants off pointless September baseball, a distinction and misery the Twins learned all too well in four 90-loss seasons in a row.
“It’s night and day,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “You can’t wait to get the ballpark. This is the first time in my career I’ve experienced this.”
The Angels aren’t strangers to Septober joy. They posted the best record in baseball last season, winning 98 games to run away with the AL West by 10 games.
This is a different team, different situation. The Angels entered the month 7½ games out in their division after a miserable 10-19 record in August.
They rank 29th in the league in team batting average, 25th in runs scored, and they own a 29-40 record on the road.
The Angels have flaws just like the Twins.
The Angels remain in the playoff discussion thanks to a more respectable showing this month that’s allowed them to chip away at the deficit. This series can give them more life. Or have the opposite effect. Same with the Twins.
It’s been so long since the Twins have experienced this kind of relevancy that it’s easy to forget the intensity of meaningful September games.
Everything feels different right now — the energy in the clubhouse, the interest around town, the daily check of standings to see if the Twins lost or made up ground.
“The adrenaline rush is more addictive than you think,” Hunter said.
Hunter has felt these emotions a lot in his long career. The competitive pressure of a big series that could determine their playoff fate is something new for many of his teammates.
That’s a long-term benefit to this summer of unexpected success, the fact that youngsters Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton are contributing in meaningful roles in a playoff chase.
“You know how happy these guys are to be fighting for something?” Hunter asked.
The Twins need only to flash back to this time last season for a comparison.
The Angels rolled into Target Field for a four-game series in September. The Twins got swept to push their record to 61-82, so far removed from a playoff race that even a telescope couldn’t locate it.
“Whenever you play in Septober and you’re not fighting for anything, it’s so boring,” Hunter said. “It’s not fun at all. You come to the park and it’s like Groundhog Day.”
A different feeling will greet them when they arrive at the ballpark Thursday. Another critical series awaits.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org