MINNEAPOLIS — At times this week, it was tough to tell which team was fighting for a playoff spot and which team was en route to 90 losses.
Yet, as the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers battled for three games at Target Field, the atmosphere was unlike anything many of the Twins players had experienced this season. Minnesota faced two former Cy Young winners as well as a lineup with several All-Star sluggers. But even though Minnesota’s record is now just 65-87 this year with Wednesday’s 8-4 win, the Twins are enjoying playing the role of spoiler.
That’s exactly what they did this series, taking two of three from the Tigers as Detroit’s lead in the American League Central shrank to just a half game.
"It’s a good team over there. They’re playing to get into the postseason," said Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, who went 2 for 4 with two RBI Wednesday. "The type of environment that was here the last three days, facing former Cy Young Award winners, things like that, you can gain a lot of experience."
Wednesday marked the second time in three games that the Twins faced one of those former Cy Young winners as David Price took the mound for Detroit. On Monday, it was Max Scherzer opposing the Minnesota lineup.
As was the case Monday against Scherzer, the Twins were able to do some damage Wednesday against Price. Minnesota scored five runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings with Price on the hill as he was chased from the game before the end of the sixth inning.
"They’re a very good baseball team with a starting staff. They’ve got a couple guys that haven’t been throwing great, but they’ve got the guys over there that can really throw the baseball," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "We’re finding ways to score runs. If our pitching staff can give us a chance, it’s always a lot of fun. It doesn’t matter who’s out there right now. Our guys are putting nice swings on the ball, and we’re competing very well."
Meanwhile, Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson outlasted Price as he went six innings and allowed four runs. After two rough innings in which he allowed four runs, it didn’t appear as if Gibson would even have a chance to go deep into the game. Minnesota had action in the bullpen as Gibson struggled.
But he worked through a pair of 1-2-3 innings in the third and fourth and escaped a jam in the fifth before yet another clean inning in the sixth. It was a valuable lesson for the 26-year-old pitcher in his second big-league season to be able to persevere even on a night when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
In fact, the entire three-game series was a string of learning experiences for Minnesota’s younger players. Rookie center fielder Danny Santana had three hits Wednesday, falling a home run shy of the cycle. Outfielder Aaron Hicks got on base twice in Wednesday’s win, one day after his infield single in the ninth inning won it for the Twins. And Kennys Vargas, yet another rookie, put together an impressive showing Tuesday as he homered and tripled — the first of his career.
Games like those are good against any opponent. Against a division leader battling for a playoff spot? The lesson can be even more essential.
"We want to finish strong. We play a lot of teams that are in the playoff race and we want to be a spoiler," Gibson said. "That’s kind of our mentality. We want to go out and be in every game like we’ve been and have a chance at the end to win it and make a difference."
It had been a while since the Twins had won a series — more than a month, in fact. The series win against the Tigers was the first since Minnesota took two of three from Houston back in mid-August. With Wednesday’s win, the Twins are now 8-7 this year against first-place Detroit and 33-36 against the AL Central (while playing just 32-51 against everyone else).
Wins like Wednesday’s won’t matter much in the 2014 season. But for a team building toward 2015 and beyond, the confidence gained by playing well against tough competition can go a long way.
"It’s a fun atmosphere — not that all the other games up until now weren’t," Mauer said. "These guys are playing for the postseason. This is an opportunity to gain some experience. It was a lot of fun."