Twins offense among best in baseball

Left fielder Jason Kubel (left) leads the Twins with a .385 batting average, while third baseman Trevor Plouffe's .326 average and eight RBI are both second on the team.

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MINNEAPOLIS — In an offseason where starting pitching was the main focus for Minnesota in free agency, much hand-wringing was done this winter in Twins Territory over the lineup.

Would this offense be able to score any runs? Will the players who had down years in 2013 be able to bounce back in 2014?

Through two weeks, the answer to both of those questions has been a resounding yes. Heading into Monday, Minnesota is averaging 5.6 runs per game. The Twins’ 67 runs scored are tied with the Angels for third-most in all of baseball, trailing only the White Sox (80) and Rockies (70).

Minnesota has already topped the 10-run mark three times in 12 games, something it did only six times in 162 games during the 2013 season. Things could certainly come crashing back down to earth for the Twins, but they’ve shown early on that scoring runs may not be the team’s biggest problem after all.

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"These guys feel pretty good about themselves swinging the bats," said manager Ron Gardenhire. "We are facing some really good baseball teams right now, a lot of teams that were in the playoffs last year. So you’re going to see good pitching. I don’t think you expect it every night, but we’ve got guys that can hit a little bit and we’ve added a couple pieces."

One of the pieces the Twins added was Jason Kubel, who previously spent seven years with Minnesota before playing the last two seasons with Arizona and Cleveland. Despite a horrendous spring training, Kubel’s .385 batting average leads the Twins through 12 games.

Another new addition was catcher Kurt Suzuki, who was brought in to replace Joe Mauer after the Twins’ six-time All-Star transitioned to playing first base. Suzuki had a reputation as more of a defensive catcher than an offensive threat. Yet he’s hit .265 with eight RBI, which is tied for second-most on the team.

Chris Colabello has been easily one of the most pleasant surprises for Minnesota. Though he tore it up at Triple-A Rochester last year, Colabello failed to hit for average in his 55 games with the Twins. He’s now tied for the American League lead with 14 RBI and is hitting .273.

And then there’s Trevor Plouffe, the Twins third baseman who had struggled with consistency at the plate during his first four major league seasons. Minnesota was hoping he’d find his swing in 2014, and he has done just that out of the gate: his .326 average and eight RBI are both second on the Twins.

"I don’t know if I’d say I was confident we were going to score a ton of runs after we didn’t score a lot last year," said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. "We didn’t really do a lot in spring training. I wouldn’t say even pleasantly surprised, but pleased with guys that we were hoping would step up are stepping up."

Minnesota has done most of its damage offensively without the bats of Oswaldo Arcia and Josh Willingham, both of whom landed on the disabled list. Arcia showed power potential last year but hit just .111 in his first four games before the injury. Willingham, meanwhile, was hitting .294 in six games before he was hit on the hand by a pitch. The hope is that the Twins’ offense will only benefit when those two outfielders return.

Helping contribute to the strong start by Minnesota’s offense has been its patience at the plate. The Twins as a team have an on-base percentage of .340, tied for fourth-best in baseball. Helping boost that number is the league-high 59 walks Minnesota’s batters have drawn.

More runners on base have led to more opportunities for the Twins to drive in runs, and they’ve capitalized on those chances.

"I don’t know numbers and all that kind of stuff; it’s a small sample size to begin with. But I know that you look at two-out hitting with runners in scoring position, I’m sure it’s night and day compared to what we were last year," said Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who leads the team with four home runs. "It’s only the first week or two of the season. As far as that, from everybody in the locker room, that’s been the most impressive thing, people coming in, getting the little lousy single with runners at second and third and two out. That goes a long way."

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Timely hitting has indeed been key for Minnesota, which has scored 22 runs this year with two outs and runners in scoring position. Twins batters have hit .306 in those situations through 12 games in 2014.

Over the course of the entire 2013 season, timely hitting was more or less absent — the Twins hit just .216 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

For the first several games this year, Minnesota’s offense needed to put up a lot of runs in order to stay in games as the Twins’ starting pitching faltered out of the gates. Minnesota’s rotation seemed to stabilize a bit this past weekend with an impressive three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals. Still, the Twins put up 21 total runs during that stretch to improve to 6-6.

The old cliche in baseball is that hitting is contagious; if one or two players heat up, the rest of the team can follow suit. Given their impressive start to 2014, Minnesota’s batters hope that it’s more than just a cliche.

"When guys are getting a lot of hits, it’s just going to multiply into more runs," said center fielder Aaron Hicks. "We’ve been scoring a lot of runs and giving ourselves opportunities to win ballgames. That’s what you need to do to be able to win games at this level."

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