Weak AL Central gives Twins continuous hope

MINNEAPOLIS — Somehow, some way, the Minnesota Twins were only 7.5 games out of first place in the American League Central after beating the visiting Chicago White Sox on Monday. Given how deep of a hole the Twins have dug themselves into, that number just didn’t seem right.

Minnesota dropped the second game of the series Tuesday to Chicago to fall back to 8.5 games back. Still, the fact the Twins are within single digits of first place says more about the AL Central as a whole than it does about the Twins.

Entering Wednesday, only two of the five teams in the division had winning records — but barely. Part of the reason is that none of the five teams has been particularly successful in its home park. Only the Cleveland Indians had a winning record (20-18) at home.

Chicago led the Central with a record of 39-35, while Cleveland was a half-game back at 37-36. The Detroit Tigers, many people’s overwhelming preseason favorite to run away with the division, was third at 36-38. The Royals were next at 33-39 while the Twins rounded out the division at 30-43 prior to Wednesday’s series finale.

“This is how it is in this division every year. It’s not just this year,” Twins center fielder Denard Span said. “For whatever the reason is, this division is real competitive. Whether it’s competitively good or competitively bad, it’s just competitive. When we play each other, it just seems like the last-place team any given day can win a series against the first-place team.”

Last-place Minnesota is in the middle of a 10-game stretch against three of the four other AL Central teams. The Twins wrap up with the White Sox on Wednesday before hosting Kansas City for four games this weekend, including a double-header Saturday. Minnesota will then travel to Detroit for three games and close with a three-game series at Texas before the All-Star break.

If ever the Twins were going to gain ground, the time is now.

“It’s back in your division, and it’s before the All-Star break. You’d like to do some climbing — towards .500 for us,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Our No. 1 goal is to get back towards .500 and get closer to that. Every time it seems like we get within 10 or so, we lose a couple, so we’ve just got to get over that hump and get in single digits and then you work your way from there. No better way to do it than at home in our division.”

With the addition of Prince Fielder in the offseason, on top of several potent bats and ace pitcher Justin Verlander, the Tigers were picked by many this preseason to win the AL Central. Though Detroit’s run differential of minus-10 is second-best in the division, the Tigers are currently behind both Chicago and Cleveland and just two games ahead of fourth-place Kansas City.

Offense hasn’t been an issue for the Tigers this season — they’re ninth in baseball in team on-base percentage (.326), 11th in batting average (.261) and 13th in runs scored (319). Detroit’s pitching has been in the middle of the pack, as they’re 15th in the majors in ERA (3.98) and 25th in opponent batting average (.263). Defense, meanwhile, has held the Tigers back. They’ve committed 50 errors in 74 games, second-most in the division behind Kansas City (54).

“They’re going to hit and they’re going to pitch. I know they strike out a lot of guys, which is probably why they can get away with a little less defense,” Twins reliever Glen Perkins said of the Tigers. “They have obviously plenty of offense. I think that they’ll be there in the end. I think they’re a pretty good team.”

The Twins haven’t been within single digits of .500 since April 29, when they were 6-15 to start the season. Since then, they haven’t matched that mark, even during the few small runs they’ve had. The Twins won four series in a row from late May to early June but still only came to as close as 10 games under .500.

Regardless of how many games out of first place Minnesota is, there are still four teams ahead of the Twins. They’ll have a chance to get closer to fourth-place Kansas City this weekend at Target Field.

“It’s a lot of bodies to climb over. I think that hopefully we’re getting closer,” Perkins said. “… How many you’re back or whatever, it’s different if you’re six back in second place. There’s a lot of teams ahead of us that we have to pass, and that’s the first thing is trying to pass the Royals. That will start this weekend.”

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