The Minnesota Twins faced the AL East twice this season before crossing the border to play the Toronto Blue Jays. In April, they split a series with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway, then took two of three from the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Pete. Since leaving Tampa’s dilapidated baseball facility on May 1, the Twins played inferior competition outside of the Houston Astros (May 10-12).
Look at the first picture, and see if you can recognize a pattern:
Now, look at the next one:
Notice the difference?
You don’t need 20/20 vision to see that the Twins built a hefty cushion for themselves in the AL Central in May, only to falter at the end of the month.
Let’s start with the first image. Minnesota takes the first two in Baltimore, then experience a COVID outbreak. Jayce Tingler had to take over for Rocco Baldelli; the Twins had to medevac Luis Arraez and Dylan Bundy out of Maryland. The shorthanded Twins scrape by with three wins against the tanking A’s at Target Field. Then the Astros gave them a reality check.
It was pretty easy going from there. Even the most cynical fan can forgive them for dropping a game in the Coliseum and two to the ghost runner in extra innings. A 27-17 record on May 25? Pretty, pretty good.
Now let’s discuss the second image.
A home series against Kansas City and five games in Detroit seem like an excellent opportunity to continue padding the record before heading to Toronto and then facing the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay at home. That is until you split a series against the Royals and then have seemingly half the team go on the injured list.
- May 28: The Twins place Danny Coulombe on the 15-day IL with a hip impingement.
- May 30: Royce Lewis suffers a knee bruise in his first game patrolling center field in the majors. Minnesota places him on the 10-day IL.
- Sonny Gray suffers a pectoral strain, and Minnesota puts him on the 15-day IL.
- May 31: Carlos Correa contracts COVID-19 a day after that. Had he gone on the IL sooner, Lewis would have been able to play at shortstop and may not have gotten hurt.
- Minnesota also places Josh Winder on the 15-day IL with a shoulder injury.
- June 3: The Twins place four players – Max Kepler, Emilio Pagán, Caleb Thielbar, and Trevor Megill – on the restricted list because they are unvaccinated and cannot enter Canada.
- June 5: The Twins announce that Joe Ryan is recovering from COVID-19 but may need a rehab start before rejoining the big-league team.
In summary, there are a lot of guys out. Correa was Minnesota’s big offseason signing; Lewis their first-overall pick in 2017. Gray is their best veteran starter; Ryan is a young hurler on the rise. Coulombe, Pagán, and Thielbar would have provided depth for a depleted bullpen. Kepler had started to mash.
Granted, not all of these guys are out against the Tigers. But the Twins are starting to experience significant loss from injuries in Detroit, plus they knew they’d be shorthanded in Toronto. All of this has to weigh on a team, even one with an experienced manager and veteran leadership.
Then they take two of three in Toronto, and we’re left wondering how good this team can be.
The two images above represent Minnesota’s best opportunity to run away with the division early. To some extent, they did. However, the White Sox will also have long stretches against the AL Central. Therefore, they could still threaten to take the division even after their slow start if the Twins aren’t careful.
But that’s not really what matters. Ultimately, the Twins have to show they can hang with the Yankees and continue to beat the Rays. Minnesota hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004 and a playoff series since 2002. Joe Mauer was a rookie in ‘04, and they beat the Moneyball A’s in the 2002 ALDS. The Twins have retired Mauer’s number; Michael Lewis immortalized the 2002 A’s in a book. It’s been a while.
Should Minnesota qualify this year, the Astros and the Yankees will be waiting for the Twins in the postseason. When I wrote that the Houston series in May was a wake-up call, some people responded by pointing out that Minnesota was shorthanded in that series. Sure, they were. And they will be against the Yankees. But who’s to say they’ll be perfectly healthy in October?
Ultimately, the “Yankee curse,” or the “playoff curse,” is as mental as physical. It’s about how the team performs in games that matter – especially when they play them in Yankee Stadium, a facility that’s better suited for a gladiator battle than America’s pastime. The Yankees/playoff curse also haunts the Twins because the Yankees are often good. So are the Astros.
The Twins also need to take care of business against the Rays. Still, that series feel a little different. Tampa plays on a B-movie budget in a building that the government should condemn. Dick Vitale is their most notable fan, and at age 82, Dickie V may be their youngest. Beating the Rays is a little less satisfying, even if they’re a bona fide playoff team.
I don’t want to make too much of three games in June. But if the Twins take two of three or even play the Yankees tight, they’d go a long way to telling us they deserve to be treated as a legitimate playoff team – not one who will get swept once they get there.