MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins had identical 18-19 records through 37 games of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Yet even though the records were the same at that juncture, something just felt different about the way Minnesota achieved that mark this year.
Five games later, Minnesota is now at .500 (21-21) entering a five-game West Coast road trip and has won three straight series. By this time last year, the Twins’ tailspin started to take effect. In the midst of a 10-game losing streak, manager Ron Gardenhire’s club dropped to 18-24 through 42 games in 2013.
The Twins’ goal this season was never to play .500 baseball, but breaking even feels like a win after three straight years of 96-plus losses. The atmosphere in Minnesota’s locker room these days has a much more pleasant vibe to it.
As one Twin said, they’re no longer playing not to lose. They’re playing to win.
"I think we come into every game expecting to win, and I don’t know if I felt that last year," said reliever Casey Fien. "This year’s just a different aspect. We think we have a chance. As long as you have that, we know we can win."
Even in Sunday’s game against Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, the Twins never let doubt creep into their minds. While Minnesota ultimately lost that game 6-2, the Twins did take an early 2-0 lead against Hernandez and still won the three-game series against the Mariners.
After Sunday’s loss, there was a feeling of disappointment in the locker room after the Twins were unable to complete the sweep. That’s because this team expects to win and feels it can beat anybody on any given day.
"Even if our starters struggle or our offense struggles, we always feel like we’re in the game this year, as opposed to the last three years, for that matter," said reliever Brian Duensing, one of just four players remaining from Minnesota’s last playoff team in 2010. "It definitely feels different. Just coming to the clubhouse, it seems like guys are having more fun. We’re all pulling for each other. We’re all excited to be here and excited to go out there and play."
Several factors have contributed to the change in atmosphere in the clubhouse. For one, Minnesota brought in several veterans who have experience with winning and have played in the postseason. Outfielder Jason Kubel was a key member of several Twins teams that won the American League Central. Catcher Kurt Suzuki was on successful Oakland Athletics teams. And right-hander Phil Hughes has pitched in the World Series and has plenty of playoff experience during his time with the New York Yankees.
That veteran presence has mixed nicely with Minnesota’s youngsters, who have gained valuable experience and at-bats over the last few years and are now able to contribute on a regular basis. Players like Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dozier and Josmil Pinto have gone through growing pains and have blended into the lineup with some of the Twins’ more veteran bats.
"I think last year we didn’t really know what we had as far as position players and a pitching staff. We came out hoping we’d do well and didn’t do as well as we thought," said starting pitcher Kevin Correia. "These younger guys have gotten a lot more experience. We added to the pitching staff, guys that we knew would be an improvement over last year. We’re definitely more confident than we were last year."
As the Twins hit the road for games against San Diego and San Francisco this week, they do so on the heels of one of the toughest schedules in baseball so far this year. Of the 11 teams Minnesota has faced so far, seven of them were playoff teams in 2013. That includes the defending World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox, from whom the Twins took two of three games last week.
Playing .500 baseball against some pretty tough teams has Minnesota feeling good about where it’s at through the first 42 games.
"We knew coming in with one of the toughest schedules the first 40, 50 games," said Dozier, who leads the Twins in home runs and stolen bases. "What we’ve done in the past few years, it was demanded that we get off to a good start. I believe we have, especially against who we’ve been playing."
The key now is for Minnesota to sustain the success they’ve had through the first month and a half of the year. As is the case in any season, the Twins will likely hit a rough patch at some point, but their longest losing streak so far is just four games. The hope is that the offense will continue to click — especially when the lineup gets healthy — while the starting pitching will get stronger as the season progresses.
If everything continues the course it’s been on through 42 games, Minnesota may finally be taking a step towards regaining its winning ways and washing away the bad taste of the last three seasons.
"It’s a fun atmosphere. Guys are pretty loose, and they’re getting after it pretty good," Gardenhire said. "It’s exciting. It’s exciting to play against these good teams and handle ourselves like we have. It’s all been real good."