MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins could only watch and wince when their All-Star closer and newly acquired veteran starting pitcher were both traded in the last two days before the non-waiver deadline.
Three weeks later, their best player was sidelined by an injury he still hasn’t returned from.
“But here we are with a week to go, and we have a chance to extend our season,” manager Paul Molitor said.
They have more than just a chance.
After finishing 59-103 in 2016, the worst record in the major leagues, the Twins (82-74) completed a four-game weekend sweep in Detroit to expand their lead over the Los Angeles Angels for the second AL wild card. The Twins had Monday off, while the Angels lost to the Chicago White Sox and fell five games behind Minnesota with six to play.
The Twins can clinch their first postseason berth since 2010 with a win and an Angels loss Tuesday night. Minnesota is the 13th team in major league history, and first since the 2009 Seattle Mariners, to go from 100-plus losses to a winning record the following season.
“We tried to put last year behind us as best we could,” Molitor said. “I think guys tried to learn from it. I think some guys might have used that as a motivation. But more than anything, it was tremendous learning experience, even though it was tough to endure at the time.”
The front office brought about shorter-term discomfort for the players in late July, when a 1-6 finish to the month served as the trigger for separate deals that sold off ninth-inning man Brandon Kintzler and Jaime Garcia for minor-leaguers. Surges by the division rival Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals factored in, too.
Kintzler had logged 45 saves over a season-plus as the closer. Garcia had just arrived in a trade with the Atlanta Braves, winning his only start, as a signal the Twins were targeting the playoffs. The reaction from the clubhouse was predictably disapproving, with second baseman Brian Dozier voicing the most displeasure.
One week later, though, the Twins reeled off six straight wins. The back of the rotation began to stabilize. Matt Belisle gradually rebounded from some early-season struggles to effectively serve as the de facto closer. In their last 46 games since Aug. 8, the Twins have hit a best-in-baseball 80 home runs. Only three of those came from Miguel Sano, their All-Star third baseman who has not played since Aug. 19 because of a stress reaction in his left shin bone.
The Twins are 20-15 without Sano, whose .870 on-base-plus-slugging percentage remains the highest on the team. He hit 28 homers with 77 RBIs in 111 games.
“You can always use a Sano, but the most impressive thing one through nine is we don’t have anybody who gets on base less than 30 percent of the time,” Dozier said. “Everybody is getting on base. They’re grinding out at-bats. The biggest thing that we’ve always lacked is people trying to do too much in certain situations, rather than take what the game gives to you and let the next guy do it. That’s kind of been the biggest thing. If he’s giving me a walk, take the walk and let the next guy be the hitter. That’s how we’ve clicked.”
The Twins are on course for a wild card game next week in New York, where they were swept by the Yankees in a three-game series last week. They’ve had trouble beating the Yankees for 15 years, especially on the road, while being eliminated from the postseason by them in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010. But sometimes all it takes to win a one-game playoff is belief and a friendly bounce.
“There’s a lot of confidence,” shortstop Jorge Polanco said. “You can see it by the games. It doesn’t matter what happens in the game, we show our confidence.”
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