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Zulgad: New era: Plan from Twins’ brass has proven to be a hit

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine had barely set foot in the door at Target Field when the Twins made a surprise run to the AL wild card game in 2017. That success proved to be a pleasant surprise, but felt like a bit of a fluke considering the team had lost a franchise-record 103 games the previous year.

Two years and one managerial change later, the Twins clinched the AL Central title on Wednesday night with a 5-1 victory in Detroit and Cleveland’s 8-3 loss against the White Sox in Chicago. It’s the Twins’ first division title since 2010 and ends the Indians three-year run atop the AL Central.

There is nothing fluky about this one.

The Twins improved to 98-60 – tied for the second-most wins in franchise history – and established a club record with 52 road victories by winning at Comerica Park. The Twins were 40-18 in early June and held an 11.5-game lead on Cleveland. The Indians rallied to take the division lead for one day in August but the Twins have spent nearly the entire summer looking down on the competition. It will have been 171 of 186 days to be exact.

Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, and Levine, the general manager, now have their fingerprints all over this organization.

While the Twins were expected to bounce back from a disappointing 78-84 finish that got Paul Molitor fired as manager after the 2018 season, no one could have forecast that the 2019 Twins would approach 100 victories. (They still have four games left in the regular season.)

A weeklong trip last March to watch the Twins in spring training in Fort Myers brought about this immediate realization. This team was going to hit home runs. The additions of Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop to a lineup that included Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario meant this club would have plenty of pop. But no one could have forecast this much pop.

The fact guys like Jorge Polanco and Mitch Garver have 22 and 31 home runs, respectively, helped the Twins long ago set their single-season home run record, then helped them break the MLB single-season mark and now have them one way from 300 for the season. The Twins have scored 915 runs.

But not everything has gone right for these Twins. Byron Buxton, perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball, again was unable to get through a season healthy. There were plenty of ups-and-downs with the pitching.

Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi made the American League All-Star team and then hit rough patches. Michael Pineda emerged as the Twins’ most reliable starter in the second half before having his season ended by a PED-related suspension.

The bullpen has gone from being a mid-season concern to being a late-season strength in part because of a trade made for Sergio Romo near the trade deadline. Lefty Taylor Rogers has emerged as the Twins’ top reliever. But a deal for Sam Dyson on deadline day proved to be a bust as his season ended with surgery this week.

Falvey and Levine don’t only deserve credit for the talent they put on the field. They also get credit for what they did off of it. Molitor, a St. Paul native and Hall of Famer, was a popular guy who was replaced by 37-year-old Rocco Baldelli.

Baldelli, who turned 38 on Wednesday, had never managed before this season and had been a member of the Tampa Bay Rays’ coaching staff. Yet, the Twins brass decided he would be the perfect fit for what they wanted to do and it’s hard to argue at this point. Baldelli goes to great lengths to never criticize his players and he’s about as unflappable as they come.

It helps that Falvey and Levine also seemed to learn from their mistakes of 2018. A year ago, it appeared the Twins had made some savvy spring-training additions when they signed starter Lance Lynn and first baseman/designated hitter Logan Morrison after they had spent the winter sitting on the free-agent market. But Lynn and Morrison seemed less than happy to be here and newly signed reliever Addison Reed didn’t exactly have a positive impact.

This season has had a much different feel as Cruz has provided veteran leadership that wasn’t present last year. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also hit 40 home runs. Gonzalez and Schoop also take a professional approach and have playoff experience that has impacted the Twins’ younger players and certainly made Baldelli’s transition to managing an easier one. The late-season addition to Romo added another guy with World Series experience.

“This is a group that picks each other up every single day, we figure out a way to win,” Baldelli told FSN as his players celebrated. “You don’t look to one guy, two guys, you look to the entire group and somebody figures out a way to get something done  to win a game. That’s how you win. That’s how you figure out a long season and make it work and we have the group to do it. … It’s an amazing group to work with.”

As the Twins’ celebrated the AL Central title on Wednesday night in Detroit, hours after their game had ended and moments after the White Sox beat the Indians, one had to wonder what the message from guys like Cruz, Gonzalez and Romo would be going forward.

The Twins are likely to face the New York Yankees in the American League Division series and while history hasn’t been kind to Minnesota in these matchups, these are no longer the same old Twins.

If that wasn’t clear when the 2019 season began, it certainly is now.


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