Twins Stretch Run

Readers of earlier posts can imagine how little I ever expected to be writing about the Twins’ “stretch run” at the start of September 2017. Yet here they are, one game behind the faltering Yankees for the top wild-card spot in the American League, two games in the loss column ahead of the closest of six credible pursuers. While it would be fun to see them make the playoffs, that doesn’t really matter. One, because they would have little chance against either the Indians or the Red Sox, should they even get that far. But two, because their success so far augurs so well for 2018 and seasons to come, which was the rosiest timetable anyone realistically had when the year started.
The greatest cause for optimism is the almost-simultaneous turnaround in hitting by Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton. Both were batting in the .200 neighborhood in May. Buxton was an automatic strikeout at the lineup bottom and Polanco would have been shipped to the minors if he had not been out of options. Now they are batting 3rd and 4th in the lineup, both with unexpected power. And Buxton even seems to have learned how to bunt! Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Brian Dozier have all been streak hitters, carrying the Twins at various points of the summer, all capable of multi-homer games. Joe Mauer, whom we had all but given up on, is now flirting with hitting .300 and has delivered clutch hits, although his home run swing still produces warning-track fly-outs to left more often than not. The part-timers – Eduardo Escobar, Robbie Grossman, Ehire Adrianza, Chris Gimenez – have all performed serviceably; the jury remains out on newer arrivals Kennys Vargas, Mitch Garver, and Zack Granite.
So far unmentioned is Miguel Sano. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Twins have had so many offensive explosions recently with him on the disabled list. Yes, he still leads the team in home runs and rbi, but he was about to obliterate the Twins strikeout records, including most games with three or more Ks. More often than not, since the All-Star break Sano was a black hole at the middle of the lineup. He was dangerous, but he was also a rally-killer. It is possible, as one blogger suggested, that Sano’s absence has caused the Polancos and Rosarios to step up; no one is looking to Sano to hit the big fly, so everyone else is stepping up. But just as Buxton’s progress has shown that it is possible to develop as a hitter and cut down on strikeouts, we can hope that Sano in future years could in fact become the dominant force he has shown signs of in the past. It is this prospect of a more mature Sano with improvements from Buxton, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco that has Twins fans salivating.
Pitching, of course, is a problem, and the reason we would be nervous about the Twins’ playoff chances this year. Ervin Santana is pitching like an ace and Jose Berrios is showing signs of becoming an ace in the future. Relievers have been doing their job, and this year has shown that you never know where your stoppers will come from. At the moment, the top two in the Twins bullpen are Busenitz and Hildenberger, whom no one had heard of in April – or June. Before that it was Taylor Rogers and Matt Belisle. But a team needs five starters, and the Twins just have, for sure, those two. Kyle Gibson has been tempting for several years, but his only consistency has been his ability to disappoint. Bartolo Colon is now the number three guy, but he is 44 and not getting younger. So, one or two or preferably three new names will have to show up at spring training next year if the Twins are to become the complete team that can take its place among the elite and make another run at a World Series. I’m hoping.