I’m excited to see what we’ll be like when we lose a game, because that’s obviously going to happen.
— Outfielder Max Kepler after the Twins swept the Royals
There’s an alternate universe where the 2016 Minnesota Twins don’t start off the season 0-9. There has to be. At one point during that losing streak, a local reporter asked Paul Molitor something along the lines of, “You have to win one, right?” It’s baseball: the result of one game in a season of 162 is rather random. Only a summer full of games tells us which teams are the best in their division.
This year has started very differently, of course. Minnesota won its first four games, something this franchise has not done since 1987 — the first year they won the World Series. And yet, even the team’s least tenured players, like Max Kepler, know that they’ll eventually lose and feel okay saying that out loud. It’s baseball, after all, and even the best teams lose 50 or 60 games.
“You always imagine that you can find a way to win your fair share of games,” manager Paul Molitor said after the Twins swept the Royals, “if not more than what people might expect.”
What if the Twins could have hit the reset button nine games into the 2016 season, as though they were playing MLB The Show? They most definitely would have, and maybe things would have played out better. It’s only nine games, but how the wins are sequenced matters. What if they had started the year on a four-game winning streak, something they did immediately after the nine-game losing streak? Wouldn’t the start of that season felt different?
What if this year’s Twins went 4-0 to start the year and then lost the next nine games?
People forget about that winning streak because it was games 10-13, not 1-9. The guys in the clubhouse will say they understand that, that they won’t let a great or poor start influence the games ahead of them, but it’s only human to get down on yourself when things aren’t going well. It’s only nine games, but those nine games set the tone for the rest of the season.
What if, for example, this year’s Twins went 4-0 to start the year and then lost the next nine games? We know they won’t, of course, because they won 4-1 Sunday. But think about it: Aren’t they then kind of like the Vikings? Another Minnesota team that starts hot and then fades (and probably misses the playoffs).
A single football game means significantly more than a single baseball game, of course, but it’s not as though the past six seasons have built equity among the fanbase. The grumbling would continue, and rightfully so — this is a team in a brand new, state-of-the-art ballpark that has had only one playoff series in it.
My theory on the past two Twins teams is that they really have been 74-win teams that overachieved two years ago and greatly underachieved last year. In 2015, the team rode a 20-7 May and Torii Hunter’s smoke machine-induced good vibes all the way until they were eliminated in Game 161 against the Kansas City Royals. In 2016 the cold start seemed to sink the 103-loss team.
“It’s fun,” said Molitor after the sweep. “You talk about perspective a lot, but obviously you come out and you’re able to beat a good team three days in a row to start your season, it makes you feel pretty good.”
That’s oversimplifying things a bit, of course, but in truth this team’s roster construction isn’t all that different from last year’s. And, on top of that, it’s not as though Hunter’s departure in 2015 was like when he joined the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2008 — he wasn’t the same player, by any stretch of the imagination. So therefore Molitor’s plea to give this team a chance, and Brian Dozier’s goal of the playoffs may not be as far-fetched as they seemed at the beginning of the year.
“I don’t buy into the fact that we’re rebuilding. I don’t buy into the fact that a winning record and still not getting to the postseason could be considered a successful year,” Dozier said before the season started.
“I’m not going to make any outlandish predictions, and I’m not going to put any limitations,” Molitor said in response to Dozier’s comments. “Baseball is certainly a game of momentum and confidence. I agree with Brian — if you don’t envision a way you can win, then you shouldn’t be out there.”
It’s very early in the season, and in no way should anyone assume that a 4-0 start and the tie to the ‘87 Twins means anything more than that this team is creating it’s own good vibrations sans Hunter’s infamous smoke machine dance parties. But those good feelings keep a team going in the long summer months when players are in need of short-term goals to stay on track. That dance party created a few minutes of happiness that provided an instant award for winning the game — a genius move by a veteran player that seemed to defy age right up until the very end.
Maybe the if the 2016 Twins had started 4-0, they would have built off of 2015’s success, overachieved because there wasn’t a major letdown to start the year
So let’s not start talking about the World Series just yet. Even the playoffs might be a bit premature. The 83-win team came damn close, but it also had three straight losing months after the Miraculous May.
Having said that, who knows? Maybe the if the 2016 Twins had started 4-0, they would have built off of 2015’s success, overachieved because there wasn’t a major letdown to start the year and snuck into a Wild Card spot. It’s unlikely, but remember: Former GM Terry Ryan told the media before the year started that he thought he had a 90-plus win team and wanted to bypass the single-elimination playoff game that the Wild Card teams have to play to get into the postseason altogether.
Clearly he overestimated the talent of his team, and that may be part of the reason he was fired mid-season, but it didn’t seem as outlandish at the time that he said it. An incredibly high bar? Sure. But maybe it was a “shoot for the moon, land among the stars” type prediction. In many ways, that could be what Dozier, the current face of the team, was trying to do by bringing up the playoffs before the season even started.
“A season does kind of bring times of momentum, where conversely it can go both directions. We talk a lot about young players and confidence and going out there and feeling like you got an entire locker room behind you, whether you have a good day or a bad day,” Molitor said after the sweep.
“I don’t want to make too much of it. It beats the alternative, as we know all too well from just a year ago. Getting a couple of wins under our belt really has gotta make those players feel awful good about what they’re doing, and we’re gonna try to carry it over to our road trip.”
In many ways it did. They won a series against the rival White Sox and didn’t let a sloppy game and poor start in Game 2 of the series, Byron Buxton’s continued strikeouts or Joe Mauer’s inability to get on base consistently in the beginning of the year keep them from riding the wave of an Opening Series sweep. In fact, the idea that this team began the year anticipating how they would respond to their first loss, rather than hunting for their first win, is an accomplishment in and of itself.
A small thing. But in baseball the small things often make a big difference in the end.