Twins-Athletics Preview

After stumbling through the last four seasons, the Minnesota Twins have summoned several of their best minor leaguers this summer, some straight from Double-A.

The prized prospects have provided further reinforcement of the assumption the franchise is headed for brighter days. The funny thing about this rebuilding phase? The Twins have become contenders again, and they’ll try to pick up where they left off to conclude the first half Friday night in Oakland.

The Twins (49-40), winners of three straight and six of seven, are 4 1/2 games behind AL Central-leading Kansas City, but they’re four games ahead of Tampa Bay, the closest to the second wild card spot.

"We’ve gotten to a point now where it’s like, ‘OK, this is something that we can do not only for a month or two months, but for a season,’" manager Paul Molitor said. "Let’s make it fun. I haven’t tried to look too far out, as far as talking to these guys about the playoffs and those kinds of things, but I hear them. I feel them. They’re believing."

Minnesota has the second-best record in the AL and is a game away from reaching 10 games over .500 after the All-Star break for the first time since concluding 2010 at 94-68 and winning the division by six games.

"We’re getting better, and part of that is the influx of young talent we’ve been able to insert into our lineup from time to time," Molitor said.

Molitor has helped instill a sense of self-assurance in a team comprised largely of players influenced by his past teaching as a roving minor league instructor in the organization. His Hall of Fame status, attention to detail and fresh perspective have commanded him built-in respect in the clubhouse despite a mere 89 games as manager.

He’s not the only rookie who’s made an impact on this team, either.

Miguel Sano has immediately become an imposing presence in the middle of the lineup, though the sample size is a mere 11 games. Eddie Rosario has quietly become a reliable everyday player. Byron Buxton was overmatched at the plate during the 11 games he played before hurting his thumb, but his speed brought instant energy and an elite caliber center fielder.

Two other members of the 25-and-under club, Aaron Hicks and Trevor May, have contributed. Kyle Gibson, the rotation’s youngest, has been the best starting pitcher.

The youngsters now have veteran Ervin Santana back from his 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, and he’ll be on the mound against the Athletics (41-50).

Santana (0-0, 6.00 ERA) was sharp in his first start but regressed in last Friday’s 8-6 home win over Detroit. The right-hander gave up six runs and eight hits – three home runs – in four innings.

The longtime Los Angeles Angels starter is 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA in 13 games in Oakland while allowing more than two earned runs once in 11 starts. Santana has held Brett Lawrie (1 for 11) and Ben Zobrist (2 for 16) in check, but Billy Butler is 8 for 31 with five home runs.

He may have no room for error against Sonny Gray, who threw his third career shutout in Sunday’s 2-0 win in Cleveland. Gray (10-3, 2.04) gave up two hits to drop his AL-leading opponent batting average to .198, and he trails only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Zack Greinke in ERA.

"He smells blood and he just goes for it," catcher Stephen Vogt said.

Gray is 2-0 with a 5.40 ERA in two starts against the Twins. Oswaldo Arcia is 2 for 5 with a home run off him.

While the A’s are still at the bottom of the AL after digging themselves 16 games under .500 by May 22, they’ve since gone an AL-best 27-20.

The poor start included losing three of four in Minnesota from May 4-7, but the A’s have won 18 of 24 in the series and 11 of 13 in Oakland.