After unlucky first half, Twins still hopeful for playoff push

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins took nine wins from an 11-game home stand into the All-Star break, a midsummer surge that can boost a middling team into the postseason race.

This might not be that kind of year in the American League.

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“I just wish we had more games ahead of us,” first baseman Joe Mauer said.

Ervin Santana is almost ready to rejoin the rotation. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are expected back soon from minor league sabbaticals. Even if reinforcements help maintain this momentum, though, the strength of the league leaders might render it moot.

Boston, Houston and New York are all on pace for 100 wins, with Seattle right behind. The Twins earned the second wild card spot last season with an 85-77 record that likely won’t come close to qualifying this time. They’re 44-50 now, 13 games behind the Mariners with Oakland, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles between them.

Catching Cleveland, which leads the AL Central division by 7 games, is the only realistic path.

“I think we will play well. I don’t know what the Indians will do, except when we play them,” manager Paul Molitor said. “So if they win 22 in a row, it’s going to be tough to catch `em.”

The Twins are 6-3 against the Indians this year with 10 matchups left. The Twins get 33 of their remaining 68 games against the three struggling division rivals behind them, Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City. Still, to surpass Cleveland’s current pace, the Twins must go 46-22 the rest of the way.

“We play 162 for a reason,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “I’ve learned throughout my seven-year career, you can’t play the game of baseball in three weeks or three months or the first half/second half. That’s not the way it’s built.”

The Twins looked built for another step forward this season, counting on natural progress from their young core, signing three veteran relievers and snatching up slugger Logan Morrison and pitcher Lance Lynn. Jose Berrios became an All-Star and Eddie Rosario has played like one, but the injuries and ineffectiveness by Buxton and Sano have been major setbacks.

“I still believe in both of those guys,” chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said.

Morrison, batting .193, and Lynn, carrying a 5.22 ERA, have hardly contributed. Addison Reed, one of the bullpen additions, has the highest ERA and home run rate of his eight-year career. Knee trouble ended catcher Jason Castro‘s season months ago. Shortstop Jorge Polanco served an 80-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug. Santana, the opening day starter the last two years, has yet to pitch for the Twins more than 5 months after surgery on his middle finger. The team’s cumulative on-base-plus-slugging percentage ranked ninth in the major leagues in 2017. It’s 18th this season.

“In theory we could get our team we expected to see here in the short term in the second half,” said Falvey, noting the exception of Castro. “Now the reality is you are where you are from a record standpoint, the league is where it is, and that’s where you start from.”

Which means Falvey and general manager Thad Levine again face difficult decisions leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. Dozier and Eduardo Escobar, who has enjoyed a career season filling in for Sano and Polanco, are pending free agents with clear trade value. Despite his performance, Lynn’s track record could entice a contender to acquire him for prospects.

The top-heavy league standings have left fewer buyers on the trade market, lessening the chance of a major move. With so many contracts set to expire after the season, there’s no need to shed salary even if the Twins are out of the race.

“Anything could happen at this point,” Falvey said. “I could see scenarios where guys go away and then maybe come back in the offseason too. Those are all real possibilities, so we’re just going to keep an open mind.”

The players hope Falvey and Levine keep an open mind about contending in 2018. Twins pitchers are ninth in MLB in strikeouts per nine innings after ranking next-to-last in 2017, one of a handful of metrics suggesting they’re better than their current record.

One of Molitor’s most important tasks over the next few weeks, then, will be to help keep the focus in the dugout away from the deadline and keep the momentum from that 9-2 home stand.

“There’s a lot of hope out of the fact we responded in this facet. It’s only an 11-game stretch, but it was a good stretch and it beats the alternative,” Molitor said. “So we’ll give some people some things to think about, including Cleveland.”