The carpet still smelled like Budweiser and champagne, but the plastic tarp and the North Face goggles were gone. Players milled about, hungover and emotionally spent from the night before. “It’s still kind of exhilarating,” said Rocco Baldelli. “There’s some remnants of a couple of things still kind of lying around. The carpet still smells like champagne and beer and maybe other stuff. I don’t know. It feels good.”
The Minnesota Twins had essentially clinched the AL Central in early September. They took two of three in Cleveland, including a 20-6 and 8-3 victory to start the series. The Twins ostensibly left Northeast Ohio with the Central. Throughout the season, they surrendered the Central lead to the Cleveland Guardians by a half-game twice, then took over first place on April 11 and held it until June 28, or 71 games. The Guardians led the division at the All-Star Break. But the Twins took it back when play resumed on July 14 and never relinquished it.
Still, Baldelli was emotional in his postgame interview after clinching, and it carried over into Saturday morning. The players celebrated raucously, but the message was clear. Winning a division where the four other teams had a losing record isn’t the ultimate goal. “This is the first step,” Carlos Correa said, “towards the goals we want to accomplish.” Baldelli said the party was just getting started. “We’re going to get that first win since 2004,” said Kyle Farmer. “I can promise you that.”
Minnesota has endured a long, taxing season. Even though there wasn’t much of a division race, a losing streak always seemed to follow a winning streak. They took early series from the New York Yankees and Houston Astros but also lost to the Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox. A five-game losing streak in early June dropped them to 31-32, and they fell to 40-42 after the Atlanta Braves swept them. Baldelli offered them a new beginning the next day, but the Baltimore Orioles swept them before the All-Star Break.
The Twins entered the second half at 45-46, a half-game back of the Cleveland Guardians. There were low points after the All-Star Break, including a five-game losing streak after the Kansas City Royals swept them and dropping three of four to the Detroit Tigers in August. But Minnesota was ten games above .500 and playing their best baseball when they clinched the Central. The postgame party caught them at the apex of an up-and-down season. “To be honest,” Emilio Pagán said the day before they clinched. “I don’t even remember being swept in Kansas City.”
Baldelli says the Twins will try to win as many games as possible for the remainder of the season. But ultimately, they must be as ready as possible for the postseason. They would love to get Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa healthy for the Oct. 3-5 Wild Card series. And they don’t want to tax their pitchers or risk injury in meaningless games. “There are going to be some preparations being made,” said Baldelli. “We’re going to have to win on certain days, like today, without some of our guys in the lineup that would normally be in there.”
Some players have something to play for. Sonny Gray is a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Pablo López is striking everyone out, and Willi Castro is stealing bases in an almost criminal way. The Twins also don’t want to limp into the playoffs. Aside from the entertainment aspect, the only upside to a close division race is that it keeps teams sharp. In the years where they’ve warded off their AL Central foes, Minnesota has had to be its best until Game 162 – occasionally Game 163.
They don’t want to drop series to the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s, and Colorado Rockies before facing a battle-tested AL West Club in the first round. However, they should be able to beat three of the worst teams in baseball without a full lineup or a starter on a pitch count. Still, they will play eight games after clinching. That’s a long time between the euphoria of winning the Central and a win-or-go home best-of-three series in October.
The Twins must find a balance between staying in form and staying healthy. They have to allow players to reach individual goals while collectively being prepared for the playoffs. They must take advantage of the opportunity to play the Wild Card series at home after a season where they didn’t find traction until late. Minnesota deserved to party, even though they weren’t in a tight division race. But they still had to wake up and play a game the day after.