The Minnesota Twins have been walking the tight rope all season long. They have managed to stay atop the AL Central despite a sketchy rotation and a leaky bullpen. On Wednesday night, they finally fell off the wire.
After a two-game sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers and another Cleveland Guardians win, the Twins are trailing in the division for the first time since June 22. With 52 games remaining, there may not be a reason to panic. Maybe they can leave Cleveland in the dust like they did in 2019.
The Twins raced to a huge division lead three years ago. After building an 11.5 game lead on June 2, the Guardians caught fire and entered a big series at Target Field. Cleveland took three out of four games in that series and created a tie atop the Central on Aug. 11.
But then the Twins took over. Minnesota went 30-14 over their final 44 games and buried the Guardians. If this is what Twins fans want to use as a blueprint to be optimistic, it would be hard to blame them. But the reality is that these are two different teams.
The 2019 Twins were the Bomba Squad. Because they were pummeling their teams into submission, their shaky rotation had more margin for error. Bullpen decisions weren’t as pivotal because the Twins were usually up by five or more runs. The Guardians also fell off the wagon, which helped Minnesota pull away.
All of those things had been well established by the time the Twins had made their move. This time around, they’re all things they need to work on.
The Twins lineup showed both sides of what they could be during their series with the Dodgers. Minnesota only scored three runs against Los Angeles on Tuesday night, but it was able to put up five on Wednesday night. Those numbers should be enough to give themselves a chance to win. Alas, it didn’t work out that way.
That’s because the Twins pitching staff is the ultimate crap shoot. Sonny Gray pitched well through the first four innings before running into trouble in the fifth. Trea Turner‘s RBI single and Will Smith‘s RBI double helped the Dodgers tie the game before the Twins turned to their bullpen.
An 8-5 loss displayed all of the Twins’ concerns coming into the series. However, it also showed the differences between the 2019 team and this version of the Twins.
That’s just not the case in 2022. Max Kepler is playing with a broken toe, and Alex Kirilloff is out for the season due to wrist surgery. Trevor Larnach is still recovering from core muscle surgery. As a result, Nick Gordon and Gilberto Celestino are playing major roles.
We haven’t even mentioned that Byron Buxton is a 50/50 proposition to play every night, and the Twins are working through a patchwork rotation. Even after the Twins upgraded their pitching staff at the trade deadline, this just doesn’t look like a playoff team.
That’s where the Guardians might have the advantage. The trio of Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill can take Cleveland deep into any game. Once they get there, they have a lights-out bullpen headlined by Emmanuel Clase. That should give the Guardians optimism heading down the stretch.
However, let’s not dismiss the wild card in this race.
The Chicago White Sox have many of the pieces that made the division a cakewalk last season, but they haven’t made it click. Some would blame Tony LaRussa for that regression. However, it may be the makings of a difficult schedule.
While Chicago enters Thursday 2.5 games back, they also are entering a stretch where they will feast on some of the worst teams in baseball. The White Sox will play 24 teams with a losing record over their final 51 games, and it’s a big reason why A.J. Pierzynski thought Chicago could win the division by 20 games earlier this season.
So what are the Twins to do? Beat the Guardians and White Sox.
One of the advantages the 2019 team didn’t have was the chance to face the Guardians head to head. At this point of the season, the Twins faced the Guardians six more times, compiling a 3-3 record.
This year’s version of the Twins will face the Guardians and White Sox a combined 17 times over their final 52 games and have a chance to settle the division without anyone’s help. If the Twins can do that, they’ll be able to overcome as they did in 2019.