More than the Twins’ record is different this season

What a difference a year can make.

On this same day in 2012, the Minnesota Twins were 6-17. Along the way, they had opened the season by losing four straight and later had a losing streak of six games before May 1.

It was a similar story in 2011. After a loss on May 1 that marked the team’s sixth defeat in a row, Minnesota was 9-18 and already 10 games out of first place in the American League Central. Starting in a hole like that to begin the season can truly deflate a team as it faces an uphill climb for weeks, if not months. You got the feeling things weren’t going to be falling the Twins’ way in 2011 and 2012 after their slow starts.

One month does not make or break a season, but it sure can set a tone if that month is April.

Because of the years Minnesota had the past two seasons, few people gave the Twins much of a chance to compete for the division title this year. When it’s all said and done, Minnesota may well fade to the back of the pack once again in 2013. But through the first month, the Twins are right at .500 (12-12) and in third in the AL Central.

The vibe in the Twins’ clubhouse just feels different now than it did last year or the year before that, when manager Ron Gardenhire’s teams went on to lose 195 games combined. So far in 2013, Minnesota believes it can compete with any team, and it has to this point.

Save for a 16-5 blowout at the hands of the New York Mets, the Twins avoided lopsided losses in April and are 4-2 in games decided by five runs or more. They’ve also won series against some pretty good teams. That trend began in the first series of the year when Minnesota took two of three games from the Detroit Tigers, who won the division a year ago and are favored to do so again in 2013. The Twins then took two of three on the road in Baltimore.  Last week, Minnesota split a four-game series with the Texas Rangers, who are 17-10 and leading the AL West.

Perhaps the Twins’ toughest opponent in April? Mother Nature. Minnesota has had a handful of games postponed, including three at Target Field and one in Chicago.

Surprisingly, the Twins are at .500 despite ranking near the bottom in many pitching and hitting categories. They’re batting just .241 as a team — 23rd in all of baseball — and have hit just 15 home runs, more than only the Marlins’ 12. The Twins have scored enough runs to get by thus far, but the bats will need to join the Minnesota temperatures and heat up in the coming weeks.

Minnesota’s rotation has been slow out of the gate, too, posting a 4.88 ERA as a group. The biggest surprise has been right-hander Kevin Correia, who is 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA in five starts. The Twins still need the rest of the starters to get on track, particularly newcomers Vance Worley (0-4, 7.22 ERA) and Mike Pelfrey (2-3, 7.66).

One of the big reasons for change in 2013 has been health. Through Wednesday, the Twins have had to put just two players on the 15-day disabled list while also activating two more players from the DL during that span. Back in 2011, the Twins used the DL four times in the first month of the season. That included losing catcher Joe Mauer, who went on to miss a good chuck of the year with bilateral leg weakness. Minnesota didn’t need the DL as much in April 2012, but the one player who did land on the DL — right-hander Scott Baker — was there for the entire season.

In 2013, pitcher Cole De Vries and outfielder Darin Mastroianni are the only two Twins who are not healthy. Otherwise, the core of Minnesota’s roster has avoided the injury bug thus far. That’s given Gardenhire the ability to plug in a consistent lineup and has meant he hasn’t had to juggle his rotation at all.

Minnesota has seen glimpses of several young players in the first month, including outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks and infielder Eduardo Escobar. The team’s veterans have also been consistent, led by Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham. That mix of youth and experience seems to be paying off in the form of an improved start.

Once again, it’s important to stress that it’s still plenty early — just 24 games into a 162-game season. But this much is clear after two 95-plus-loss seasons: it’s a lot different when a team is at least competitive early on. We’ve seen what can happen when the opposite takes place, and it’s not pretty.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.