The Dodgers Are A Serious Litmus Test For the Twins

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot to like about the Minnesota Twins right now. They’re tied for the lead in the American League Central. Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa are worth the price of admission. José Miranda is leading a stable of emerging talent. They added a quality starter and two bullpen arms to fix their biggest flaws.

All these things could help the Twins go on a run late in the season, but fans are probably asking themselves one question.

Are they good?

In the end, the Twins have an inconsistent team. One minute, they look like they could win the division. The next, they look like they’re going to extend their 18-game postseason losing streak — or miss the playoffs altogether. It’s hard to tell which team could show up. Fortunately, the Twins will embark on a litmus test beginning with this week’s series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

At first glance, Twins fans can dismiss this as an irrelevant interleague series. The only way the Twins will see the Dodgers in the playoffs is in October. Even then, they would have to make their way through the New York Yankees and Houston Astros to get to the World Series.

That makes this a great chance to head to Los Angeles and grab a Dodger Dog. But it also has some deeper meaning going down the stretch.

Joe Ryan took the mound on Tuesday night; he has been tremendous since coming to Minnesota in the Nelson Cruz trade. He’s gone 10-6 with a 3.97 ERA in 23 career starts, but eight have been against AL Central opponents. In those starts, Ryan has gone 6-0 with a 1.79 ERA. This includes a 3-0 record and 1.02 ERA against the Detroit Tigers and a 2-0 record and 0.77 ERA against the Kansas City Royals.

The Tigers and Royals aren’t making the playoffs, and it’s unlikely the Central will get more than one team playing in October. With that in mind, Ryan must prove he can beat teams outside the division.

Tuesday’s outing did nothing to change that narrative. Ryan allowed nine hits, and six of them went for extra bases. The right-hander didn’t get much help from his defense, but that does not matter on the scoreboard, where Dodgers plated six runs over five innings,

After Tuesday’s loss, Ryan has gone 4-6 with a 5.82 ERA in 15 starts against non-divisional opponents. Those numbers are inflated by a 10-run outing in San Diego last month and a pair of bad starts against the Seattle Mariners (6 ER in 8.2 innings). But those are the type of teams that Ryan will have to beat if they want to compete in October.

If Ryan can figure this out, he could show his worth as a No. 3 starter in a playoff series – that is, if Gray can prove he’s a top-2 starter. With a record of 6-3 and a 3.19 ERA, Gray is the type of starter that can take the ball and set the tone for the series. The real issue, though, is his durability.

The right-hander has already made a pair of trips to the injured list. His past two starts also haven’t been the model of consistency. In his last start against the Toronto Blue Jays, he limited a potent lineup to one hit over five shutout innings, but he also issued five walks. The lack of control inflated his pitch count, and instead of making a short night for the relievers, he wound up taxing the bullpen.

With Gray reaching the sixth inning twice in his past nine starts, this could be a battle of the bullpens, creating another challenge for the Twins.

The bullpen has been a key storyline throughout the season, but the Twins seem to have addressed their issues. Michael Fulmer‘s switch to deliver has revitalized his career. Jorge López turned that same path into his first All-Star appearance. Jhoan Durán has been dominant all season long, giving the Twins a late-inning trio that could shorten the game.

This is a great combination against the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, but can they do it against a playoff contender?

Like most aspects of this team, the Twins bullpen gave mixed reviews during their series with Toronto. The relievers did a great job getting the ball to López last Friday night, but he couldn’t get the job done against the Blue Jays. Fulmer helped lead the Twins to victory, but he loaded the bases before getting a crucial strikeout.

Both pitchers looked dominant in Saturday’s win over Toronto, but it still left some room for doubt when the Twins headed to Los Angeles — especially when Emilio Pagán is lurking in the bullpen. If the Twins can shut down the Dodgers, they will give themselves a chance to win. But that depends on which lineup shows up.

Some of the issues with the Twins lineup are out of their control. Buxton’s ailing knee has created a game of Russian Roulette, where he could hit two home runs or show up at the ballpark unable to walk. The rest of the lineup has been hit or miss, crushing some of the best pitchers in baseball but making some second-level relievers look like Randy Johnson.

In June’s series against the Yankees, the Twins were up for the task, knocking Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes Jr. out of the game early. But this is also a lineup that has been shut out 11 times this season. While Clayton Kershaw did the honors for the Dodgers on Apr. 13, the Twins have also been shut out by Daniel Lynch (4.79 ERA) and Germàn Màrquez (5.18 ERA).

Julio Urias didn’t shut out the Twins on Tuesday night, but he came pretty close. The Twins mustered five hits and struck out eight times against the left-hander, and if it weren’t for a garbage-time home run from Buxton, they would have scored two or fewer runs for the 37th time this season — a number that represents nearly one-third of their games.

Even with Ryan Pepiot taking the ball in the series finale, Los Angeles has a rotation full of five pitchers who could serve as the ace of the Twins staff. That could be a preview of what they see in October.

Let’s say the Twins draw the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round. They’ll have to face Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah to get out alive. What if the Twins drew Seattle? Say hello to Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo. Even the Tampa Bay Rays could toss Shane McClanahan and Corey Kluber in a two-game series, and don’t get me started on what the New York Yankees or Houston Astros could throw at them.

This leaves the Twins at a disadvantage heading into the final weeks of the season. They were able to build a nice cushion by beating up on some of the MLB’s worst, but that has evaporated after falling into a tie with the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday night.

Vin Scully once said that good is not good when greatness is expected. The Twins didn’t sign Carlos Correa expecting to be good. They also didn’t upgrade the pitching staff, hoping to just squeak by in the division. They want to make a run. The only way to do that is to beat teams like the Dodgers.

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