Rocco Baldelli is a rookie manager, youngest in the majors, whose Tampa Bay teams never came within a dozen games of first place during his four seasons as a coach and managerial trainee.
So maybe what Baldelli and the Twins are about to embark on — a one-month fight for an AL Central championship — is mostly new to him. No worries, says the imperturbable manager. He already knows something important about what’s ahead: It’s going to be fun.
“It’s an opportunity to accomplish something special, something we set out to do back in February, and even before that,” Baldelli said. “These are games you’ll remember for a long time. The big plays, the important hits. Winning for each other.”
Four weeks remain in the 2019 season, with 27 games against six different opponents in six different cities. The Twins, who once won six division titles over nine seasons, haven’t finished atop the division in nine years. Their only competition for first place, the Cleveland Indians, have won the past three championships, and went to the World Series in 2016. The six remaining games with Cleveland figure to be critical, perhaps decisive.
But there are plenty of other essential factors to pay attention to down the stretch. Here’s a guide to watching the Twins’ first pennant race in nearly a decade:
‘Hey, this is crazy’
Harmon Killebrew would have loved this Twins season, though the franchise’s greatest slugger might have had trouble believing it. The Twins, already with the MLB record for home runs in a season, are on pace to become the first team in baseball history to launch 300 balls over the fence, and while the explosion of long balls is a coast-to-coast phenomenon, Minnesota is a particularly unlikely epicenter.
The Twins, after all, have hit more home runs than they have allowed only three times since Killebrew retired 45 years ago, and not at all since 1991. They ranked 23rd in home runs last year, and now will come remarkably close to doubling their 166 blasts of 2018. Before this season, the Twins hit 50 home runs in a calendar month only three times in 58 seasons. They have done it every month of 2019.
“Nobody can say they expected this. You look at the numbers, and you go ‘Wow,’ ” Twins hitting coach James Rowson said. “I knew these guys were capable of having a consistent approach. We knew home runs would be a big part of what he do. But what they’ve produced, from one through nine in the lineup, day after day — I mean, hey, this is crazy. But at this point, they’re just being who they are. It’s not an accident.”
Opposing pitchers can testify to that. But the Twins will need to keep that record-setting pace going in September, too, and beyond. The offense depends upon it to a remarkable degree.
The Twins having driven home 52.4% of their runs this season by hitting the ball over the fence, by far the most homer-centric output in franchise history. That’s a larger percentage than any team but the Blue Jays, and one of the largest in baseball history.
The flip side, however, is that the Twins can be vulnerable to pitchers who keep the ball in the park. They rank in the bottom five of the league in drawing walks, and they are 2-9 since Memorial Day when they don’t hit a home run.
“You do run into those times where you run into a cold patch. We try to stay away from an all-or-nothing approach, focus on squaring the ball up and hitting the ball hard, not aiming for the fences,” Rowson said. Pointing out the breadth of the Twins’ power attack — a record eight hitters with more than 20 home runs — Rowson said: “The nice thing is, we can keep pressure on the pitcher. You get one guy, here’s another, and another. It’s a lot to deal with.”
The Twins bullpen seems to have been stabilized by their deadline acquisitions.
Sam Dyson owns a 2.08 ERA in eight games since returning from the injured list, and Sergio Romo’s ERA is 3.55 with the Twins, but with batters hitting .200. Along with Tyler Duffey, who hadn’t given up a run in August; Trevor May, who has given up three hits with 15 strikeouts over his previous eight innings; and Taylor Rogers, who has nine scoreless outings among his past 10, the Twins bullpen developed into a strength in August: a 1.94 pen-wide ERA since Aug. 15.
The idea: See if hitters experience more shock and awe trying to hit their fastballs than the rookies do pitching in a pennant race.
“We’re trying to be open-minded and creative about where we might find help,” General Manager Thad Levine said, citing the example of Francisco Rodriguez — a 20-year-old who came straight out of the minors and into the 2002 pennant race, where he helped the Angels win a World Series.
Graterol in particular has that sort of profile, Levine said, which is what so intrigues the Twins.
“In today’s game, where hitters seemingly can handle almost any level of velocity, his seems to have that extra level that is challenging for them to hit,” the general manager said. “Not only is it challenging for them to hit, it’s challenging for a catcher to catch and the umpire to call. He has that level of explosion.”
The injury factor
While adding a new weapon is captivating, restoring their old ones holds more urgency for the Twins.
Nearly every position player has spent part of the season on the injured list, but nobody has missed more time than Byron Buxton. The center fielder, whose world-class defense and resurgent offense make him one of the most indispensable players in the game — as the Twins’ 25-27 record without him attests — has battled migraines, a sprained wrist, a concussion and a dislocated shoulder joint this season, the latter injury still sidelining Buxton exactly one month after it occurred.
“His is an absence that we can mitigate but not replicate. Byron is a unique talent who adds myriad advantages to both offense and defense,” Levine said. “His health is one of the most prominent assets we could possibly add.”
He’s not the only one to worry about, either. Fellow outfielders Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario have missed games recently because of nagging injuries, and Marwin Gonzalez, too. First baseman C.J. Cron is playing with a stubbornly sore thumb that might have contributed to an August slump.
And Nelson Cruz is back in the lineup despite a ligament that has become detached from his left wrist. Doctors say he doesn’t need it to hit, and Cruz reports a disappearance of the pain that afflicted him much of the year. That’s a relief to the Twins, whose September fate could be determined by who is available and who isn’t.
Holding an ace card
If there is a Byron Buxton of the pitching staff — uniquely skilled and vital — Jose Berrios is it. Which made his confession a week ago all the more startling.
“We are battling to win the division,” Berrios said, “and I felt that I’m not doing my job.”
For a two-time All-Star, the acknowledged ace of the Twins staff, that’s a disturbing admission. But the 25-year-old righthander hasn’t been himself for a month. Berrios started with eight wins in his first 13 starts, was superb in June, and posted a couple of scoreless starts in July. But August has been a disaster: an 7.57 ERA over five starts, none of them getting beyond six innings, with a rise in walks and a drop in strikeouts.
“Have the starts been Jose’s best? No, but he’s a worker and he’s going to continue to figure this out,” Baldelli said confidently. “He’s a very diligent guy. Nobody works harder than Jose, and he’ll get to where he needs to be.”
Berrios’ backpedal has coincided with encouraging steps forward by Michael Pineda, pitching now with his pre-elbow surgery command, and Jake Odorizzi, who gave up two earned runs over a three-game span. The rotation has been remarkably stable all season, yet it’s difficult to predict how Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson might line up their starters in the postseason.
Restoring Berrios to his All-Star self would remove a major part of that mystery.