As the season goes, so does the finale for the Twins

MINNEAPOLIS — This year was supposed to be better. Minnesota felt it had improved on last year’s club that finished with 96 losses.

But with a 5-1 loss Sunday to Cleveland, the Twins ended up right where they were at the end of last season: a 66-96 record. While the Indians are headed to the postseason as a wild card team, Minnesota is headed to the offseason with plenty of question marks.

“Overall, it was just not a good year,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, whose contract is up at the end of the season. “I think I don’t really have to say a whole hell of a lot out there in the clubhouse. They all know that. They’re disappointed. They’re also anxious to get home, take a breather, get this out of the way and come back next year, I hope, and try to figure some things out.”

Sunday’s loss was a microcosm of the season for the Twins — or at least a perfect example of how things have gone down the stretch for Minnesota with Joe Mauer injured and Justin Morneau traded. The Twins struck out 16 times Sunday against the Indians, the 66th time this season they’ve fanned 10 or more times in a game. The offense mustered just five total hits and didn’t score its only run until it already trailed 5-0 in the seventh.

Just as the Twins’ starting pitching was shaky all year, it faltered early in Sunday’s loss. Left-hander Scott Diamond fell behind 2-0 after facing just two batters. Michael Bourn led off with a base hit and Nick Swisher sent a two-run homer to left field to put Minnesota in yet another early deficit.

While Diamond bounced back to keep Cleveland to just the two runs through five innings, things unraveled in the sixth. Shortstop Pedro Florimon was charged with a throwing error, as was Diamond. Those two errors resulted in a pair of Indians runs and a 4-0 lead that Minnesota simply couldn’t overcome.

Hit with the loss Sunday, Diamond finished the year 6-13 with a 5.43 ERA. One year ago, he was the Twins’ best starter and went 12-9 with a 3.54 ERA. Two of the four runs he allowed Sunday were unearned as he pitched six innings with three strikeouts and no walks.

“There’s going to be some changes. Personally, I’ve got to make some changes as well,” Diamond said. “It was a really rough season, but it was a season of adaptation and making some changes.  . . . I think based on how things went today, I’m pretty positive going into the offseason.”

Sunday’s loss means Minnesota finishes the season with a run differential of -174. During last year’s 96-loss season, that differential was -131. The Twins went 2-12 in the final two weeks of the season, wasting the opportunity to get Gardenhire his 1,000th career win.

Instead, he has 998 wins as he enters an uncertain offseason.

“This season, I don’t think really who was managing would have had much of a difference,” Mauer said. “Gardy’s a great manager. He’s managed some great teams here. He’s a great leader, and I hope to see him back here.”

Like Sunday, strikeouts were an issue for most of the year, especially down the stretch. The Twins struck out 10 or more times in seven of their final eight games, with a nine-strikeout game interrupting the streak.

Missing Mauer’s bat for the final 39 games with a concussion and Morneau’s bat for all of September after he was traded to Pittsburgh certainly didn’t help the struggling offense.

“I think people had a chance to see how valuable a guy like Joe and Justin are to the lineup — as well as presence in the locker room and everything,” said second baseman Brian Dozier. “But on the field, you saw how valuable they were in the lineup. We always look towards those guys to get those hits and not leave as many runners on base like we did do the last couple months.”

So as Cleveland celebrated its wild card berth near the pitcher’s mound after Sunday’s win, the Twins walked back to the clubhouse with their heads down once again. The season finale didn’t go the way the Twins had hoped, and neither did the 2013 season.

As players hugged and said their goodbyes in the locker room, they did so knowing that the roster may very well have a different look next spring. Three straight seasons of 96 losses or more will call for a shakeup.

“This is an emotional day out in the clubhouse,” Gardenhire said. “Everyone’s taking off and going a lot of different places. You have to live with the things we did this summer and try to figure out a way to make it better.”

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