The Twins won five of their final six games in August to wrap up a month in which the team won 20 games, remarkably, after trading two veteran pitchers for prospects at the July 31 trade deadline.
Things started to look a little hairy in the first week of September, though, as the Twins lost four of five games to two teams that might not qualify for the postseason, the Royals and Rays. In the big picture, the Twins are still OK with regard to the postseason race – and they salvaged the final game of the Rays’ series on Wednesday, and blew out Kansas City 17-0 on Saturday. Things are tightly contested in the American League wild card race, and it looks to me like it’ll be that way all the way down to the wire.
With that in mind – and the recent run of losses – here are 5 things the Twins can do to keep winning through September. (I won’t mention the schedule, which has two important series circled the rest of the way, the Yankees and Indians, since the Twins won’t have any control over the timing of playing their opponents. I do think it’s an easy schedule, generally, and the Twins should be able to take advantage accordingly.)
Rookie Aaron Slegers started an important September game for the Twins on Wednesday, and he was so-so. His undoing Wednesday was less about a middle-middle fastball that turned into a home run for Evan Longoria; the bigger trouble was walking back-to-back Rays hitters with two outs before Lucas Duda got him for a 3-run shot. Slegers impressed me in his MLB debut earlier this year, and he’s posted good numbers in the minor leagues this season. Still, the best teams in baseball at this time of year don’t often rely on a rookie making his second start in the big leagues to go get a game they feel like they need to win.
Before Slegers it was Dillon Gee in that rotation spot. Gee has pitched well for the Twins in long relief this season but had a not-so-great outing in what will likely be his final time on the mound as a starter for Minnesota this year.
The Twins have used an incredible 16 starting pitchers this year (and 35 overall!) to get through the first 5 months and change of this resurgent season. Thankfully for the Twins, I don’t think they’ll need to dig any deeper into that depth. With the way their off day lines up next week, I believe they’ll be able to turn back to a guy who’s been dependable for the most part for them this season: Adalberto Mejia. He was out with an arm injury and last pitched a rehab outing for Triple-A Rochester on Sept. 4, in which he threw 61 pitches.
He’s not exactly the most efficient guy on the staff, and he hasn’t finished 6 innings since July 8, but for the season Mejia has a 4.47 ERA and really has only had one awful start in 18 outings. Based on their day off, the Twins could either add Mejia back into the mix on Tuesday, Sept. 12, or they could skip that spot entirely and not need a fifth starter until the 16th.
Thursday, Sept. 7: Kyle Gibson
Friday, Sept. 8: Ervin Santana
Saturday, Sept. 9: J.O. Berrios
Sunday, Sept. 10: Bartolo Colon
Monday, Sept. 11: OFF
Tuesday, Sept. 12: Gibson
Wednesday, Sept. 13: Santana
Thursday, Sept. 14: Berrios
Friday, Sept. 15: Colon
Saturday, Sept. 16: Adalberto Mejia???
Sunday, Sept. 17: Gibson
Monday, Sept. 18: Santana
The way they’ve pitched lately, you should trust Colon and Gibson. They’ve been big reasons the Twins are still sticking around.
The Twins don’t mind walking. In fact, they’re one of the most likely teams in baseball to draw a walk. Minnesota is currently tied with the Yankees for the fourth-highest walk rate in baseball (9.7%), and that number is even higher since the All-Star break (10%, tied for 3rd). Thanks in part to their ability to get free bases, they’re a top-5 A.L. offense in terms of on-base percentage, and they’re third in the A.L. in OBP since the break.
That’s a noteworthy improvement from where they finished last season, 22nd in OBP – or the year before that, when the Twins flirted with the postseason despite a team OBP that ranked 28th in the Majors.
With Robbie Grossman back in the lineup, plus mainstays Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier filling out the Twins’ card, the team should do well to keep that OBP up near the top of the league. But if you’re looking for a leading indicator that a young-ish team is pressing in the midst of a grind to the postseason, keep your eye on how often they’re taking walks and getting on base.
Berrios has had a breakout season befitting of his top prospect status. He’s striking out a batter per inning, limiting the walks, and has a 4.01 ERA. On days when he has his best fastball and his breaking ball is moving, it can look like an unfair fight for opposing hitters. And that’s before considering the eye-catching movement he gets on his 2-seamer, or his changeup.
The bad news for the Twins is that he’s given up at least 5 earned runs in 3 of his past 7 starts. To be fair, he also has three dandy starts in that stretch. It’s just that after posting a 3.50 ERA in his first 13 starts of the year for Minnesota, the second-year pitcher has run a 4.95 ERA in the 8 starts since.
Berrios doesn’t have to be an ace for the Twins to make the postseason. But if he’s as steady as he was the first 3 months in Minnesota, their odds go up.
The Twins basically had two relievers they could really count on in the first half of the season: Brandon Kintzler and lefty Taylor Rogers. Then they traded Kintzler to the Nationals and Rogers also hit a rough patch.
Lucky for them, Matt Belisle has turned his season around in surprising fashion and rookie side-armer Trevor Hildenberger has been a revelation in a setup role.
This step is much easier to write about than it is to accomplish, but in games in which the Twins have a chance, they should shorten their bullpen. Provided they can swing it with the respective workloads and days off, they should be counting on Hildenberger, Belisle and Ryan Pressly and play matchups with Rogers and Alan Busenitz.
It seems to me like they’ve already started to do this, but the final three weeks of the season are the time to throttle down where possible, again, with consideration to days off, especially for a guy like Belisle.
This one might be out of their control. Losing an all-star slugger from the middle of the offense hasn’t torpedoed their chances like we might have thought two months ago. Provided Sano can return this season from his stress reaction injury in his shin – and provided he’s capable of returning to form without the benefit of a high-level rehab assignment – the Twins would in theory get a jolt in their offense. He reportedly hit off a tee this week in Florida during the series against Tampa Bay.
That still leaves plenty of hurdles to clear to return to the lineup, much less at a high level. But if Minnesota gets its fearsome slugger back, I think they’d improve their infield defense and they would also add a big bat to a lineup that since the all-star break ranks 2nd in the A.L. in runs scored and fourth in Weighted On-Base Average.