WEATHER ALERT

Hard-hitting Twins offer hope to long-suffering Minnesota baseball fans

The glory days of Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and even Joe Mauer are a thing of the past down in the Twin Cities.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/07/2019 (1285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The glory days of Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and even Joe Mauer are a thing of the past down in the Twin Cities.

But that doesn’t mean winning baseball has also become ancient history, even though it was starting to seem like that was the case.

If you haven’t looked closely at the MLB standings lately, you may be in for a bit of a surprise: After nearly a decade of mostly despair and disappointment, the Minnesota Twins are, dare we say, actually good. Like, really, really good.

Dust off those old jerseys and get the hats out of storage, local baseball fans. It’s trendy to show your colours once again. And one of the best teams in the game happens to be our closest MLB neighbours, just a 6 1/2-hour drive to the south.

The Twins, under the guise of first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, are providing plenty of bang for the buck. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press files)

Minnesota hit the 100-game mark Tuesday night with a 61-39 record, which is fourth-best in the 30-team loop. Only the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros have had more success this season.

With 62 games to play, the Twins sit on top of the Central Division and are on pace for their best season since 1965 in terms of overall record.

That’s no small feat, considering the Twins play in a league where big-market clubs can seemingly flex their financial muscles and buy their way to the top. Consider this: the Yankees ($218 million), Dodgers ($197 million) and Astros ($161 million) currently sit second, fourth and eighth in MLB in terms of overall payroll.

You have to look way down to the 20th spot to find the somewhat frugal Twins at $121 million.

Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi currently has a 3.18 ERA. (Ben Margot / Associated Press files)

The players driving the bus these days may not be household names outside of die-hard fans: Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver are among the offensive stars, while Jake Odorizzi, Jose Berrios, Martin Perez, Kyle Gibson and Taylor Rogers are some of the key figures on the mound.

But there’s no denying this somewhat anonymous group, under the guise of first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, is providing plenty of bang for the buck. Quite literally, in fact.

Fans love home runs, and these Twins are hitting the ball out of the park at a record-setting pace. They already have 10 players with double-digit homers, with 191 deep flies through 100 games. That puts them on pace to hit 309 home runs this season — which would shatter the all-time MLB record of 266.

For some additional perspective, Minnesota hit a grand total of 166 last season. Yeah, these guys are not only good but also exciting, and the nightly aerial attack is something to behold.

Kepler celebrates his solo home run off New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia in the fourth inning on Monday in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone / Associated Press files)

It has been 27 years, and counting, since the Twins captured the World Series by beating the Atlanta Braves in a thrilling seven-game series. Pitcher Jack Morris was named playoff MVP, while rookie-of-the-year Chuck Knoblauch was part of a powerhouse lineup led by manager-of-the-year Tom Kelly.

But not a lot has gone right since that 1991 championship, which was their second in five years. The Twins have appeared in the post-season only seven times since, with one playoff series victory to show for it, way back in 2002. They have finished below .500 for six of the past eight years, including losing a franchise-record 103 games in 2016 and a 78-84 mark last year.

Sure, they got a beautiful new ballpark in downtown Minneapolis that opened in 2010, replacing the cavernous and outdated Metrodome. But the team hasn’t exactly lived up to the state-of-the-art facilities they play in. Attendance has been steadily declining, too, from 39,798 per game in that inaugural season at Target Field to just 24,188 last year.

But after all that darkness, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel, both on and off the field. The first-place Twins are averaging 26,744 a game this season, and you wonder if all that suffering and misery is finally going to pay off.

Kyle Gibson throws against the New York Yankees in the first inning Tuesday in Minneapolis. (Tom Olmscheid / Associated Press files)

Minnesota fans are understandably a bit nervous these days, even while looking down on the majority of their opponents. Since going a season-high 25 games above. 500 on June 15 (47-22), the Twins are a a mediocre 14-17 since. Their 11-game division lead has now shrunk to just three over the surging Cleveland Indians, and this rather young and inexperienced squad appears to be cracking, at least a bit, under pressure.

And then there’s those damn New York Yankees. Minnesota’s last three playoff appearances have all come to a quick end at the hands of the Bronx Bombers — being swept in back-to-back series in 2009 and 2010, and then losing the one-game wildcard playoff in 2017.

If the playoffs started today, guess who would be meeting in the first-round?

Then there’s what went down Tuesday night at Target Field, which is only going to cast more doubt on their fate. After the Twins built up a commanding 8-0 lead through three innings, the Yankees managed to rally for a 14-12 victory in extra innings. That included scoring twice in the top of the ninth to take a 12-11 lead, giving up a run to the Twins in the bottom of the ninth, then scoring twice in the top of the 10th to take the game.

Nelson Cruz hits a solo home run off New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia in the first inning Monday in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone / Associated Press files)

Talk about an emotional roller-coaster. And perhaps a further sign the Yankees are living rent-free in the heads of the Twins and their fragile fan base.

With more than two months left in the regular season, plenty can change. But there’s talk of Minnesota being big buyers at the upcoming July 31 trade deadline, and this franchise finally seems to be pointed in the right direction after losing its way for a long time.

Perhaps a return to the glory days of old is just around the corner.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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