Monday, September 28, 2015

Twins are still in the hunt

It's the final week of the regular season for baseball. The Twins have seven games left, and they're still in the hunt for an AL wild card spot. That's right, it's Sept. 28 and the Twins are still playing relevant and meaningful baseball games.

The Twins (80-75) are 1.5 games back of the second wild card position, behind Houston (in the wild card) and the Angels. The Twins finish off their road schedule with four games in Cleveland, a team that's four games back, then they return home for a final three-game set versus AL Central Champion Kansas City.

So, there's still a chance.

Remember 150-some games ago?
It's amazing that we're at this point, really. You think back to last March, when various predictions had the Twins holding down the AL Central basement and losing more than 90 games yet again. It wasn't supposed to be a good season. Then the Twins had a horrible first week of baseball, which included getting swept in Detroit as they were outscored 22-1, and a 1-6 record. It seemed the predictions were right, and we were in for a very long season of baseball.

Then a 20-7 record in May happened. All of a sudden, the Twins were hot. They found some kind of winning formula. Even though there were the ebbs and flows of the season, that month really set the tone for the rest of the way. They were resilient and haven't been exactly out of anything since then.

Fast forward to September. The Twins have come very close to that second wild card spot, though they haven't been in that position yet.

Extra wild card
MLB added the extra wild card to each league in 2012. Two wild card teams, instead of one, play each other in a one-game playoff to see which moves on to the divisional series. I must say, this new process has grown on me, and I'm a fan of having two wild card teams. This might seem like an easy position to take, since the Twins are trying to get into the AL wild card race, but it's still true.

I think it's good for baseball. Kansas City has had the AL Central locked up most of the season. The AL East is a contest between New York and Toronto, and the other will likely take the top wild card. So that leaves a bunch of teams - Houston, Twins, Angels, Cleveland - fighting it out for that last spot.

One thing is true, to quote the late Yogi Berra: It ain't over til it's over. Don't get me wrong, it won't be easy, but it's possible. They need to win at least five, maybe six, of these remaining games to gain ground in the race.

As they say, it's all when you play teams, not who you play.

Help yourselves out
The frustrating thing is that the Twins haven't helped themselves in every situation. They had an important 10-game homestand that started Sept. 11 and only managed a 4-6 record. That included losing two-of-three to the Tigers and three-of-four to the Angels. It included a five-game losing streak, losing both games of a Saturday doubleheader and two losses in 12 innings. They dropped a game each to the Indians and then in Detroit.

While obviously losses happen, teams have off-nights and bad stretches, this was a tough situation to watch. The only good thing was that Houston started losing, too, so the Twins weren't really losing any ground. Depending on how full your glass is, they didn't take the opportunity to gain any ground either.

Any time you lose out on a playoff spot by a tiny margin at the end of the season, it's easy to magnify the recent games. In reality, you could pick out any loss on the year and point to that saying, "what if that were a win?" Still, I know what I'll take a look at if the Twins come up short: That 4-6 homestand where they struggled and didn't take advantage.

But if your glass is half full, you'll say we never expected the team to be at this point in the final week of the season anyway. So let's be grateful for all the fun baseball we've watched this year.

We'll see what happens this week. I hope the Twins can pull off a comeback for a wild card. Maybe we'll even get another Game 163 out of the deal.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

For Twins fans, September baseball is fun again

September baseball. For the past four years that's meant there are still Twins games happening as we gear up for the Wild season just around the corner. This year is different. The Minnesota Twins are playing meaningful baseball in September for the first time since 2010, their first season at Target Field.

The Twins (72-67) were off Thursday, but they gained a half-game with a Texas loss, so they are just one game back from the second AL Wild Card spot. Even if the Twins manage to sneak in, it's still a tough road.

But the Twins are capable of playoff success. And the season has been fun to watch regardless.

There must be an explanation
One question people are asking is: How? What's different? OK, so that's two questions, but you get the idea. What's so different about this 2015 team from the recent teams? This team was supposed to have another 90-loss season under its belt this year, not contending for a wild card spot.

I don't know that there's any real clear-cut answer here. For one thing, this team is resilient. It seems like such an over-used word to describe this bunch, but it just fits so well. This is a team that has won some big games in surprising fashion, or often, a comeback fashion. Just because they get down early or have the deck stacked against them on paper, that doesn't mean they stop playing.

Here's something else: The team got hot in May - very hot - and from then on it seemed like the expectations were raised. Because they proved they could do it. They proved they could hit well. They proved they could win series and win a majority of games in a month's time. So, why couldn't they do that the rest of the way, right?

Well, of course it's never that simple with a season that lasts 162 games. Obviously there are ebbs and flows. The Twins found that out with some reality in June when they slumped a bit. It happens. But the Twins have never truly been out of it, at least from the wild card.

The stand-out players
I think the Twins have made it to where they are with a few things. You've got Miguel Sano who made his Major League debut this season. He's been a jolt of energy to this ball club. This guy has got power. I can't remember a Twins player with the kind of home-run pop that he has. Every time he steps to the plate, you take notice because he might hit a home run. Really.

A Brian Dozier walkoff home run. This one was July 10.
Other players have been surprising or really just had their turn with a hot streak. Brian Dozier was on fire in the first half of the season, crushing timely home runs and leading the team in loads of hitting categories. Aaron Hicks has contributed with his glove but also finally found his comfort zone at the plate, something he's struggled with in his first few MLB seasons.

Rookie Eddie Rosario might be one of the biggest surprises this season. How much of a better start can you get than homering in your first MLB at-bat? He's contributed well in the hitting category, even using his speed to set the Twins all-time record for triples in a rookie season. He's quickly becoming a stud in the outfield, too, with 15 assists. Teams better update their scouting reports and have their players think twice before trying to take an extra base against Rosie. He's got an arm.

Shortstop hasn't been a position of consistency for the Twins, although Eduardo Escobar has put together a nice little run with his bat lately. Byron Buxton was another top prospect who made his debut this season. His speed tracking down fly balls is proving to be the best asset so far. He's struggling to adjust to the higher level of pitching, but I think his hitting will come around, and his speed will help on the base paths.

Here's how it shakes out 
With a few weeks left, the Twins are still in the hunt. It's about winning games, winning series with teams, which isn't exactly a new or complicated team strategy. The pessimist in me has already decided that if the Twins make the playoffs, they will end up facing the Yankees in the first divisional round and get swept. Because it's the Yankees. Whether that set-up is logical or not, I haven't really thought about. (The Twins have to get to and through the wild card game first.)

It will be New York and Toronto coming out of the AL East; one will win the division and one will take the first wild card spot. They've been battling it out. It's the second wild card spot that is up for grabs.

It's hard to gain ground, but the math is still there. I mean, the Twins technically aren't eliminated from winning the AL Central, even though it's an extremely unlikely scenario. The Royals grabbed the division title a long time ago. The Twins will need to take advantage of a lot of games against divisional opponents the rest of this month. They still face the Tigers, White Sox, Indians and Royals.

What's interesting about the relatively new wild card format is that it gives many more teams a chance at hoping for the playoffs. Two teams get in for a one-game playoff in hopes of taking on a division winner in a playoff series.

You've got a chance, and that's all teams and fans can ask for.