MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Twins have the AL Central title in hand.
Now they can get back to the unfinished business of trying to stop that record postseason losing streak.
The Twins secured their third division title in five years on Friday night, eliminating the Cleveland Guardians and Detroit Tigers with an 8-6 win over the Los Angeles Angels and popping the champagne in their raucous clubhouse afterward.
“We did a lot of different things to build this club, and the team really is jelling,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. "That’s what you want to see. It doesn’t happen most of the time. This is not the norm, but the team has come together so, so well. It’s a great team.”
The Twins have been in first place for 167 of 177 days this season, the best of the worst in terms of the AL Central's current stature among the six divisions in the major leagues.
The Twins even had the lead with a losing record a few times in the first half, as the Guardians failed to defend their division title amid key injuries and hitting troubles and the Tigers never built much momentum. The Chicago White Sox were the biggest disappointment, and the Kansas City Royals have been buried in their rebuilding project for five years.
But the Twins, whose 18-game postseason losing streak is the longest in North American professional sports, have quietly been playing quite well since the All-Star break despite the persistent absence of injury-prone star Byron Buxton and a staggering strikeout total (1,586) that puts them on pace to set a dubious all-time major league record for one season.
Since the break, the Twins are 37-26. That's the sixth-best record in MLB over that span. Their starting pitching ERA (3.83) for the season is second-best in baseball, and they're fourth in the major leagues with 219 home runs, sporting 11 players with 11 or more dingers.
“These were things that in our minds we believed, but like anything you have to prove yourself,” Baldelli said. “We were very confident in the guys that we had and some of the young players that we knew could be on the cusp or were going to show up soon, so it’s wonderful when you watch it play out the way you think it’s going to play out and watch players that you believe in succeed on the field.”
The Twins also have 21 comeback wins after the All-Star break, the third-most in baseball.
“We're not going to give up no matter what’s going on,” starting pitcher Bailey Ober said.
The last time the Twins won a postseason game was 2004. The last time they won a series was 2002. None of these players were in the majors then. Most of them weren't even in high school. Baldelli made his major league debut at age 21 in 2003.
“Every since I became a Twin, I’ve read about it. I’ve heard about it. The 2023 Twins were built different,” starting pitcher Pablo López said. "We’re a different breed. We’re going to go out there and show everyone what we can do when we’re on the field. We can take on anyone. We’ve got arms to get people out. We’ve got offense to put runs on the board, so it’s going to be fun.”
With Sonny Gray and López at the top of the rotation, the Twins ought to be able to match up well enough with any opponent in the AL wild card series, which begins on Oct. 3. If the bracket were to be filled out now, they'd be the No. 3 seed and the home team for each game in the best-of-three series against the third of three wild card teams.
The Twins actually still have an outside shot at a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed for the AL playoffs, trailing the AL West-leading Texas Rangers (85-68) by 3 1/2 games with nine games left. The Rangers, Houston Astros (85-69) and Seattle Mariners (84-69) are in a tight race for both the division title and the wild card spots.
Getting healthy will be the top priority, though.
Buxton is still working his way through knee soreness and running out of time to return. Rookie standout Royce Lewis (strained hamstring) and shortstop Carlos Correa (plantar fasciitis) just landed on the injured list this week. Correa said he's “very confident” he'll be ready to return for the playoffs.
“It will take a lot for me not to play in those games," Correa said. "They’re way too meaningful and they’re way too important not only for the organization, but also for myself.”
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB
Dave Campbell, The Associated Press