Just about a month ago, the Twins faced World Series runner-up Houston for a three-game stint at Target Field.
And they proceeded to play like they were wearing cement shoes for a swim. The Astros swept them by a combined score of 21-3, including two shutouts.
Such a dismal showing against one of MLB’s top teams didn’t inspire much confidence that this Twins team could overcome its years of underachieving and finally make it out of the first rounds of the playoffs. But jump ahead to now, as the Twins finished their toughest stretch of the season, and there might just be hope for this group after all.
“That was a big eye-opener for us to let us know what we need to try to work on and get better at,” Byron Buxton said of the Houston series. “We’re headed in the right direction to get where we want to be.”
Yes, the Twins put up zero runs Sunday as Tampa Bay beat them 6-0 at Target Field. But the past three series, all against the American League East’s top-three teams — on the road in Toronto and at home against the Yankees and the Rays — reveal the Twins came out collectively ahead at 5-4.
Sunday’s showing in front of 25,350 announced fans — in which the Twins mustered just five hits, spot starter Cole Sands struggled (he went 4⅔ innings with five hits and five earned runs) and the defense sagged — was a low point. As was blowing a 7-3 lead that would have won the Yankees’ series for the Twins. But the team has also enjoyed some remarkable moments, including clobbering high-end starters like Kevin Gausman, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes, Gerrit Cole, Drew Rasmussen and Shane Baz with runs and forcing them to exit the mound early.
Plus, the Twins have found success despite some absences. The starting rotation, for example, has been without Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober and Josh Winder. Shortstop Carlos Correa missed several games after contracting COVID-19. Buxton continues to sit out every few games as he manages a knee injury.
With those big names sidelined, other players have emerged. Devin Smeltzer has been so solid as a rotation fill-in, with his 3-0 record and 2.38 ERA. Luis Arraez has become the best hitter in baseball with a .359 batting average and .441 on-base percentage.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said what has impressed him the most throughout this span is how his players never tried to just “get through” this part of the season.
“Our guys went out there every game since the beginning of that Toronto series and wanted to take it to the team we’re playing against,” Baldelli said. “And everywhere you looked, there were just great efforts everywhere, and there was no contentedness.”
The Twins took two of three from both Toronto (35-24) and Tampa Bay (35-25, before falling 1-2 to MLB-best New York (44-16). Houston sits atop the AL West at 37-23. The Twins lead the Central at 35-27 All those numbers make one sentiment pretty clear: The Twins can hold their own against some of MLB’s strongest squads.
That Houston series plus a two-game set against the Dodgers in April are the only times the Twins have failed to notch at least one win against a foe.
“We know we’ve got a team that shouldn’t be swept,” Buxton said. “For [Houston] to come in here and basically, not embarrass us, but it didn’t sit well with us, I think it was much to prove. It wasn’t just one player, it was a group meeting, and everybody felt the same. If you feel the same like that, you’re able to turn that page. Things like this happen.”
This being the Twins tracking for a 92-win season and potential postseason redemption.
“We’re a pretty good team,” Baldelli said. “…I like a lot of what I saw. I think there’s a lot to build on.”