Does winning feel great or what? More than anything I think it’s great to have that hope again, that this team can pull off some sort of miracle this season by fighting back to win the AL Central again…is it possible? I think the answer to that question is ‘yes’, but it deserves a better look than that. I think it’s worth looking ahead (and behind) to find out what our beloved Twins will have to do to put themselves in contention come September.
1.) Get Healthy.
Writing that sentence reminds that the Twins still have at least 6 key players currently on the Disabled List: Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, Jim Thome, Joe Nathan and Kevin Slowey. It’s been nice to have Mauer and Nishioka back, but it still feels like the team is incomplete. Pitching is what has given the Twins the edge in June, but the pitching staff will come back to earth eventually which means the Twins are going to need to score more runs to continue their winning ways. Having a complete lineup will be key to a more consistent lineup, so hopefully over the next couple of weeks this team will start to look more like it did on Opening Day in terms of personnel.
2.) Win Interleague Games.
The Twins are often talked about as Interleague Monsters which is true if you look at their record over the past 5 years, but is less true when you look at their recent history. Last year they went only 8-10 against the senior circuit and so far this year, they’re an even .500 (3-3). Between 2008 and 2009 the Twins won 26 games against the NL while only losing 10 games. The next 12 games for the Twins are all against NL opponents and with San Francisco and Milwaukee on the schedule for 9 of those games, it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. How the Twins do over the next 12 games will go a long way in determining whether they are still relevant come the All-Star break.
3.) Win the Close Games.
Through the end of May, the Twins were 10-15 in 1-run games. Since then they’ve gone 6-1 in 1-run games en route to a 14-3 record so far in June. That’s 32 1-run games in the first 70 games of the schedule. Because the Twins offense hasn’t been very prolific this year, there is an increased emphasis on winning 1 and 2-run games. To put it another way, if the Twins had gone 15-10 in those first 25 1-run games of the year, they’d be 2.5 games out of 1st place right now instead of 7.5 games out…and things would look a lot different. I’m hoping to see more scoring out of the Twins in the next 3 months, but what really tips the difference at the end of the year is how the team does in close games.
4.) Continued Success From the Bullpen.
As April and May clearly illustrated, the bullpen is an integral factor in the success of a baseball team. In April the Twins bullpen had the 24th ranked ERA in baseball and the Twins went 9-18. In May the Twins bullpen ranked 30th in ERA and the Twins went 8-17. So far in June the Twins have had the best bullpen, ERA-wise, in all of baseball (1.82) and they’ve have an MLB-best 14-3 record so far this month. The reasons for this turnaround are many, and luck has certainly played a part, but in order for the Twins to continue playing winning baseball their bullpen is going to need to continue to be effective. Getting Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan (who has looked much better so far in his rehab starts) back should help to solidify things and the Twins also have the option of calling up Kyle Gibson to provide some relief down the stretch as well.
5.) Overall Consistency of Play.
By the numbers, the Twins chances of winning the AL Central still appear slim. To win 90-games, the Twins would have to finish out the season winning 59 against only 33 losses (.641 winning %). To win 85 games they’d have to go 54-38 (.586 winning %). Winning 85 games is a more reasonable expectation, but 85 wins is a borderline number to win the division. Over the last 5 years, here are the number of wins required to win the division (starting with last year): 89, 87, 89, 89, and 96. There have been years in which 85 wins would have won the AL Central, but not recently. So what am I saying? The bottom line here is that the Twins are going to have to be consistent winners over the remaining 92 games in order to take this division. Consistent play means winning series, playing well at home and getting good pitching performances night in and night out. Going into play tonight, the Twins have 3 teams in front of them and sit 7.5 games back of the 1st place Indians, so they certainly have their work cut out for them.
I’m still optimistic about this team. Getting and staying healthy is going to be the #1 factor that determines their success over the next 3 1/2 months. If they can, I don’t think a division crown is out of the Twins’ reach. We all expected this team to be in the mix come of the end of the year and while things started much worse than any of us could have imagined, this team is still in it. Go Twins.