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With defending Central champs in town, Twins’ playoff push begins tonight

This is going to be fun.

Twins fans have been yearning for meaningful baseball for a long time, and they’re going to get plenty of it over the next four days at Target Field. Yes, 2017 had it, and to a lesser extent, 2015. Both those years, though, were pop-up years, and both had the Twins fighting for the second wild card spot, not the division title.

The 2015 Twins finished 83-79. They entered the final weekend a game back of the second wild card, but got swept by the Royals (who would go on to win the World Series). In 2017, the Twins benefitted from a weak middle part of the American League to sneak into the second wild card spot at 85-77. They finished 17 back of first-place Cleveland that year, and lost to the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.

You have to go back to 2010 to find a Twins team fighting for a division title in the last third of the season. That team held off the White Sox to win the Central, with the turning point coming on Jim Thome’s mid-August walk-off home run deep into the Minneapolis night. That 2010 team marked the end of a decade-long run that saw the Twins win six Central titles (’02, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’09, ’10) and lose a Game 163 in 2008. Since then, Minnesota’s been among the worst teams in baseball.

Now, the window is wide open. Their young core has joined forces with a group of productive, team-oriented veterans to form the franchise’s most exciting team since 2006. On pace to have the greatest power-hitting lineup in the history of baseball, the Twins jumped out to an 11.5 game lead on June 4, hitting home runs at a ridiculous rate and getting great starting pitching from Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Martin Perez.

Cleveland, the three-time defending Central champs, weathered that storm, and have shown they aren’t giving away the division without a serious fight. They’ve shaved 9.5 games off that lead in just over two months, and come to Minnesota with an improved offense, stellar pitching, and a lot of momentum. While this series won’t crown a champion either way, it will help shape the narrative for the season’s final stretch. A Twins sweep or series victory maintains the status quo, with Cleveland looking at a daunting stretch against the Red Sox, Yankees, and Mets coming up. A Cleveland sweep or series victory vaults them back into the driver’s seat, a familiar position for them over the past three years, but one they haven’t occupied at all in 2019. This isn’t do-or die, but the stakes are high.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this rivalry is how different the two teams are. Minnesota’s mostly mashed their way to a 70-44 record. They’re second in the Majors in runs/game (5.80), and first, by a wide margin, in home runs (224). Cleveland, meanwhile, is 20th in the majors in runs/game (4.62), and their offense was so anemic for much of the season that they traded arguably their best pitcher, Trevor Bauer, for corner outfield mashers Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig in an effort to bulk up their production. They’ll help, but it’s the reemergence of Jose Ramirez that’s really sparked Cleveland’s bats. Ramirez, who finished third in the A.L. MVP voting each of the last two seasons, was slugging just .322 into July. It was a mystifying drop-off, but he’s now broken out. Since July 4, he’s slashing .318/.333/.682, and hit critical home runs in each game of Cleveland’s double-header sweep of the Rangers Wednesday.

The most impressive part of Cleveland’s run has been their pitching, which ranks third in baseball in team ERA (3.64), despite nearly their entire vaunted rotation missing huge chunks of time. Mike Clevinger missed more than two months early in the season with a back issue. Corey Kluber’s been out since May 1 with a broken arm. Carlos Carrasco, unfortunately, is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with Leukemia. And Bauer, of course, is now in Cincinnati.

It’s hardly seemed to matter. Shane Bieber’s been one of the better pitchers in baseball, and is fresh off an All-Star Game MVP. Zach Plesac has a 3.13 ERA. Adam Plutko’s been a serviceable fifth starter. And rookie Aaron Civale, who will start Sunday, has given up just one earned run in 12 innings. The bullpen, despite losing Andrew Miller, has gotten strong performances from closer Brad Hand (2.35 ERA) and setup men Nick Goody (1.35 ERA), Nick Wittgren (2.62 ERA), and Adam Cimber (3.18 ERA). Even the ageless Oliver Perez has an ERA of 3.03.

The Twins, to many fans’ surprise, rank eighth in baseball in team ERA (4.12). Those numbers were aided by spectacular early season performances from Odorizzi and Perez, who both have come back to earth, to varying degrees. The bullpen has been a source of stress for fans all season, after the front office failed to address it in the offseason and throughout this season.

Only Blake Parker was added on a major league deal in the winter, and he’s since been DFA’d. Ryne Harper has been a revelation, but otherwise the Twins have had to piece things together behind Taylor Rogers. After failing to land Craig Kimbrel, Minnesota added Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson at the deadline. Romo’s been great in his first few appearances. Dyson’s been awful, and it turns out, hurt.

The front office has done a ton–much of which has been behind the scenes–to turn around a franchise that finished 59-103 in 2016, and they deserve praise for it. In my view, they also deserve some criticism for failing to significantly improve the pitching staff of a team that’s shown it has the pieces to win a World Series. Despite a loaded farm system from which they could trade, they failed to land impact starter Marcus Stroman, who went to the Mets for two prospects that rank outside the top 100. They also didn’t get starters Noah Syndergaard, Mike Minor or Robbie Ray, who all stayed put, or even a back-end starter like Tanner Roark, who would have been an upgrade over Perez and was traded to Oakland. After failing to land a starter, the obvious course of action would seem to be loading up a bullpen that’s struggled for much of the season, but they didn’t trade any of their top 25 prospects, and acquired two solid, but not necessarily elite, arms. That one of them turned out to be hurt prior to the trade makes the deadline seem like a real missed opportunity.

The good news for the Twins, as it pertains to the Cleveland series, is their top bullpen arms are rested. Rogers and Romo haven’t pitched since Sunday. With an off-day immediately after the series, expect both of them to pitch at least three times over the weekend. Harper, Tyler Duffey, and Trevor May, the third, fourth and fifth options out of the ‘pen, haven’t pitched since Monday. Joining them in the ‘pen will be prospect Randy Dobnak, who should make his major league debut sometime over the weekend. Dobnak’s been spectacular in the minors this year, with a 2.02 ERA, 7.3 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 across three levels. Dobnak is stretched out, and last pitched Friday.

With good weather in the forecast and crowds of 30,000+ expected, this should be a phenomenal series between two heavyweights, setting the stage for a six-week sprint to the finish that will be filled with plenty of exciting and nail-biting moments. Twins fans who’ve stuck with the organization through a lot of lean years will finally get the meaningful baseball they deserve, and this weekend could go a long way towards ensuring the drama continues into October.



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