The last time the Minnesota Twins occupied first place in the AL Central, few outside their clubhouse figured they’d still be there when the pennant race heated up in earnest.
Back atop the division it’s won four times in the last six seasons, Minnesota is now being taken a bit more seriously.
The Twins seek to make their return to the top lasts when they begin a six-game road trip Monday with the first of nine August games against the Seattle Mariners.
After spending much of the past week within one-half game of first place, Minnesota finally overtook the Chicago White Sox on Sunday.
While the Twins (62-49) were beating Cleveland 6-2, outfielder Denard Span admitted to watching the scoreboard as Kansas City blew out Chicago 14-3, vaulting Minnesota one-half game ahead of the White Sox and into first place for the first time since May 13.
“It feels good to finally say we’re in first place, for at least a day,” Span told his team’s official Web site. “We can’t sneak up on anybody anymore this year. Everybody knows we are for real this year.”
Sunday’s win over the reigning division champion Indians - who are currently in last place - improved the Twins to a major league-best 28-13 in their last 41 games.
Span and Brendan Harris both homered and Francisco Liriano returned to the majors for the first time since April by pitching six shutout innings Sunday, but the rest of Minnesota’s young rotation - all under the age of 26 - has been a large reason for the team’s success all season.
“I think we’re at the point of the season where these guys all know what they need to do now,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “… Every one of them will compete; every one of them will attack.”
That includes 25-year-old left-hander Glen Perkins (8-3, 4.20 ERA). The rookie made only one major league start before the Twins fell from first place in May, but he’s helped get them climb back to the top by winning six of his last eight starts.
Perkins, who has never faced the Mariners (42-69), could see plenty of the AL’s worst team in the next few weeks. Minnesota and Seattle will play their entire season series between Monday and Aug. 27, including six meetings at Safeco Field.
The schedule would seem to favor the Twins, who have won six of their last seven games in Seattle. They’ll also be facing an opponent with seven more losses than any other AL team.
The Mariners had dropped seven straight home games before an 8-4 win over Baltimore on Sunday. They’ll now try to win consecutive games at Safeco Field for just the third time since the end of May.
Seattle starter Miguel Batista (4-11, 6.43) continues to suffer through a brutal stretch, as he is 1-7 with a 7.11 ERA in 18 appearances - 10 starts - since May 16. The right-hander’s 6.67 ERA in his 18 starts is the worst among major leaguers with at least 15 starts in 2008.
He did turn in a quality start Wednesday at Texas, allowing three runs - two earned - in six innings, but did not receive a decision as Seattle lost 4-3.