Zulgad: Prove it time: Twins have chance to make powerful statement against Yankees

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins spent the first two months of the season making this baseball thing look easy. A 40-18 record led to an 11.5-game lead in the AL Central in early June and it appeared the Twins’ path to the playoffs was going to be an easy one. One month and 18 days later, it has become clear that assumption could not have been more incorrect.

That was proven again Sunday as the Twins’ rallied from a one-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 7-6 victory on Max Kepler’s run-scoring single that drove in Ehire Adrianza with two outs at Target Field. Adrianza had gotten the key one-out hit, driving the ball off the right field wall for a triple that scored Luis Arraez from first.

All of this left Twins players throwing water and jumping for joy in shallow right field before what was left of a crowd of 34,070 that began the afternoon by applauding as the Twins took a 4-0 lead after two, then was left expressing its disgust as the bullpen and Trevor May ran into its latest struggles and by the end was exhausted after a 4-hour, 2-minute game that gave the Twins a split of the four-game series against the A’s.

A loss would have left the Twins with a 1-5 record on this homestand and only two games ahead of Cleveland in the AL Central. Instead, Minnesota kept its lead at three and avoided losing three in a row for the second time in a week after not having done that all season.

The Twins reward for this? They get to close this nine-game homestand with a three-game series against the New York Yankees starting Monday. The Yankees lost to the Colorado Rockies on Sunday but have been dominant for much of the season. New York’s 64-34 record (a .653 winning percentage) is the best in the American League — the Los Angeles Dodgers are a big-league best 67-35 (a .657 winning percentage) — and it has won seven of 10 games since the All-Star break, including five in a row entering Sunday.

The Twins’ run differential is an impressive plus-111. The Yankees are a plus-138. The Twins just took a punch from a very-good Oakland team and had to twice rally late to avoid getting swept. The Twins bullpen’ spent the weekend with seven relievers, although help should be on the way with Zack Littell optioned to Triple-A Rochester after Sunday’s game and a corresponding move, or moves, expected Monday.

Guess what? Nobody cares. If these Twins are as good as many of us thought early on — and that has been called into questions of late — there will be no excuses when lefthander Martin Perez (8-3, 4.10 ERA) goes against CC Sabathia (5-4, 4.06) on Monday night at Target Field.

The Twins looked horrible last week against the dysfunctional Mets, they lost two of four to the A’s and the Indians have played very good baseball the past two months. The Twins won one of three against the Yankees in the Bronx in May when they were playing good baseball. That hasn’t been the case of late.

The Yankees come to town/Judd has a bullpen conspiracy theory

Minnesota’s bats have gone cold at inopportune times — the Twins had the bases loaded with no one out in the fifth and finished the inning with only one run — and the pitching definitely has hit some rough spots. Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey has designated three relievers for assignment since a week ago Saturday, creating an expectation that he might be close to a trade to bolster the bullpen.

But that has yet to happen and it’s fair to wonder why Adalberto Mejia, Mike Morin and Matt Magill were all jettisoned if they weren’t going to be replaced. On Sunday, it got ridiculous as manager Rocco Baldelli used May for 49 pitches over 1.2 innings in which he gave up three runs (two earned), two hits, three walks and struck out three. May’s earned-run average is up to 4.10 after an incredibly tough week and fans patience with him is at zero.

It’s hard to blame them.

The good news is the Twins remain atop the Central and are now 60-38, tying the 1969 and 1992 Twins for the third-fewest games (98) needed to reach the 60-win mark. But that seems to be of limited comfort to Twins fans these days. The team is 4-5 since the All-Star break and has shown far too many cracks for anyone to maintain the confidence that existed in early June.

The Yankees, meanwhile, long have been the Twins’ kryptonite — in good times and bad for Minnesota — and would love nothing more than to sweep the Twins, while seeing the Indians sweep the Blue Jays this week and, thus, create a tie atop the AL Central.

Baldelli’s team has gone through some trying times of late in his rookie season as manager, but having that one-time, 11.5-game lead completely erased might cause Rocco to have to step up his crisis management.

That, of course, can be avoided if the Twins take two of three or sweep the powerful Yankees. That might be wishful thinking, but, honestly, if this team is as good as we once believed it should be possible. If not, maybe the early success of the 2019 Twins was more mirage than reality.