Tight AL Central keeping Twins in the mix

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Minnesota facing several tough pitchers on its recent road trip was partly to blame for the team's losing stretch.

David Butler II/David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins are finally home after a long, 10-day, nine-game road trip that saw them drop two of three series. They’ve lost a season-high five straight games, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox — all of which were one-run losses.

Yet despite all that, last-place Minnesota finds itself just six games out of first place in what has turned into a very crowded American League Central.

"We’ve got a lot of games left within the division," said Twins first baseman Joe Mauer. "Whether they’re April or September, it’s always meaningful games because everybody’s so close."

Whether you want to call it parity or mediocrity, the AL Central remains the closest division in baseball from top to bottom. The red-hot Kansas City Royals, who recently reeled off 10 straight wins, overtook Detroit this week to claim first place in the Central. The Tigers have endured their struggles, particularly by the pitchers, and are just five games above .500.

Cleveland is 37-36 and 2 1/2 games behind the Royals, while the White Sox — in Minneapolis Thursday for a four-game series — sit four games back from Kansas City and two games ahead of the Twins. Nobody’s running away with this division, and that means the Twins are still in the mix, even though they’re at a season-worst six games under .500 entering Thursday’s game against Chicago.

"I think baseball fans of all teams in the Central division should be excited about what’s going to come up," said Twins reliever Brian Duensing. "The Central is wide open. That’s exciting. All we’ve got to do is get on a hot run, kind of like Kansas City did, and who knows what could happen. We could be at the top there before you know it."

AL Central checkup

In order to climb back in the division, Minnesota will have to start hitting. As the Twins’ starting pitching has come into form — especially on the last road trip — Minnesota’s bats have gone quiet. The stark contrast between the success of the pitchers and the struggles of the hitters was evident in Boston this week. Minnesota allowed a total of five runs in three games, but scored just twice during that stretch and lost all three games of the series.

Minnesota has scored 297 runs in 70 games, which ranks last in the AL Central. Several key players, including Mauer, have endured slumps as of late. Somehow, the Twins have to flip the switch on offense and start putting runs on the board to back up the solid pitching performances.

"We went through some tough pitchers. Boston has the big boys that we had to face there, and we went through Detroit with some pretty good pitching, and Toronto," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "I think a lot of it’s due to the other pitchers. They threw the ball very well against us. You start fighting it a little bit, trying to do too much. We’ve just got to settle in and do our thing and not try to get too goosey up there, put the barrel on it and hopefully they’ll start falling in for us."

More often than not, it seems as if the AL Central has remained a tight division from start to finish in recent years. Last season, Detroit beat Cleveland by one game to win the division. In 2013, the Tigers won by three games. The 2011 season was a bit of an outlier when Detroit ran away with it by a whopping 15-game margin.

Many expected the Tigers to once again run away with the division, but that hasn’t happened. Yet if the Twins don’t put together some sort of winning streak soon, they’ll risk falling even further behind the rest of the pack in the AL Central.

"Everything’s going to have to come together," Duensing said. "We’re going to have some luck here and there. Everyone needs that. I feel like if we just keep doing what we’re doing, a run is not that far from our grasp."

There’s plenty of baseball left to be played, and the Twins have closed bigger deficits in much shorter periods of time in years past. They’ll have a chance this weekend with four games against a division foe before heading back on the road for six games.

It’s not just the AL Central that remains close as July approaches. Minnesota is just 5 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot, although there are plenty of teams ahead of them. But in a year when Minnesota was expected to finish at the bottom once again, the rest of baseball is allowing the Twins to hang around.

"I was looking at the wild card last night; somebody said there’s not really two or three dominant teams this year. I think everybody’s kind of pretty good," said Minnesota second baseman Brian Dozier said. "That’s a good sign for us. If we can put two and two together, I think it’s going to be exciting."