The sun was out, the Twins were fighting for first place and Mona Mitchell came out of the gift shop at Target Field with a new team T-shirt. She had already bought tickets for two upcoming games, and she was flirting with buying more.

"I love it when you go to a game that matters," she said. It has been four years since the Twins have played games that mattered, and the team's unexpected surge to the top of the American League Central Division standings has rekindled baseball interest in the Twin Cities.

Fox Sports North reports that viewership was up 29 percent from April to May, and Mike Dimond, the cable outlet's general manager, was already talking about the possibility of having the season on the line in the final weekend with the defending American League champion Kansas City Royals at Target Field.

"We're not going to get ahead of ourselves," he added, however. Then again ...

Kevin Tapani, the former Twins pitcher, is among many who like what they see in everything from Paul Molitor, the new manager, to Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier, the slick-fielding infielders who are leading the team in home runs. "They're very fundamentally sound," said Tapani, now a high school baseball coach at Providence Academy in Plymouth. "They run balls out. They do a lot of things right. [The] pitching is solid. They're in every game."

Alan Petri of Apple Valley said the turnaround has come just in time. "If I were the Pohlad [family, the team's owners], I'd be a little nervous if this season hadn't happened," he said as he waited at Target Field for a friend to buy tickets. Target Field is five years old, explained Petri, and counting on fans to go to a game simply to see the stadium may not work anymore.

"Now — it's just a stadium," he said. "You need something to put in it that draws people. Stadium won't do it by" itself.

Downward curve

The numbers support that view. After four consecutive 90-plus loss seasons, season-ticket holders had dropped from 17,500 last year to just 13,500 this year. For many fans, having the Twins play host to baseball's All-Star Game was last season's highlight — as opposed to actually watching the team stagger to another last-place finish, 20 games behind the division-winning Detroit Tigers.

Twins spokesman Kevin Smith said that, after 26 home games, the team is running about 2,000 fans below last year's average game attendance but has been quickly closing the gap with single-game ticket sales. He said the Twins hoped that the arrival of three popular teams — the Milwaukee Brewers starting Friday, and the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals later in June — would further boost attendance.

The Twins are so far averaging 23,935 fans this year, a decided dip from the 39,798 fans the team averaged during Target Field's inaugural year in 2010.

This year's average attendance is 10th in the American League, ahead of only Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland and Tampa Bay. But Smith, trying to be optimistic, said: "That's pretty good. [So], OK, middle of the pack."

Smith said the more significant change has come not from statistics, but from the sound within the ballpark. "Dozier gets a double, and that 'sound' is back — that 'roar' of the fans which has been kind of, maybe, lacking," he said.

Interest rising

At Ticket King, the ticket brokerage near downtown Minneapolis, Michael Nowakowski said he too is feeling a surge. And so is Dermot Cowley, the owner of O'Donovan's, an Irish bar near Target Field that now has a large "Welcome Baseball Fans" banner across its windows. Cowley said last year he had season tickets, and "I couldn't give them away."

Nowakowski likewise said that Ticket King's tickets for games against the Cubs and Cardinals are going for as much as $250 each, and said "I don't think there was a ticket that went for more than $200" all of last year.

But Smith and the Twins realize that if the team begins to slip, its window for recapturing local sports fans may be narrow. As Smith spoke Tuesday of the team's early success, the Twins were already competing with the run-up to the start of training camp for the Vikings. All eyes — and TV cameras — that day were on star running back Adrian Peterson, who returned to the team for practice this week after his nine-month expulsion.

Jumping on the Twins' bandwagon can be pricey. Tom Thomas bought three tickets to Saturday's game against the Brewers, and paid $126. "It's an 'elite' game, so they raise the prices," Thomas said with a shrug.

J Schwartz, a social studies teacher from Cottage Grove, went to last Sunday's game but balked when the cheapest tickets were $37 apiece. So he watched the game on a jumbo TV at a transit station next to Target Field. He had a partial season-ticket plan but dropped it after 2012. "It was tough to spend all that money when they weren't winning," he said.

Now he said things are different. "I like Dozier — I like the way he plays," he said.

At the VFW in suburban Mendota, the TVs were all tuned to "Wheel of Fortune" on a rainy Wednesday even though the Twins were playing in Boston. "They're usually in here watching the game," said Ashley Moren, the bartender. "I am surprised they haven't asked me to change it."

From the end of the bar, a patron named Andy finally asked to turn on the game and quickly saw that the Twins were winning 2-0. "I can't help it. I'm interested in what they're doing," he said, smiling.