Back in the throne: Twins win first AL Central title since 2010

Just three years after producing the worst record in baseball, the Minnesota Twins have earned their ticket back to October.

Minnesota clinched the American League Central division title for the seventh time and the first since 2010 on Wednesday thanks to their 5-1 win against the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians loss to the Chicago White Sox. In total, the Twins have 12 division championships since 1965.

In 2016, the Twins finished with a 59-103 record. It was the franchise’s lowest win total since the 1995 season. They followed that with an AL wild card game appearance in 2017 -- where they lost to the New York Yankees -- but fell 19 games short of the one-game playoff last year.

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As has been the case all season long, Wednesday’s victory was highlighted by the long ball. Luis Arraez and Eddie Rosario both went deep in the late innings to secure a win for Randy Dobnak. The Twins starter allowed one run over six innings.

The "Bomba Squad" helped Minnesota set the MLB home run record in early September. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
The "Bomba Squad" helped Minnesota set the MLB home run record in early September. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

How the Twins won the AL Central

If 2019 is indeed the year of the long ball, the Twins are one of the league’s most notorious culprits.

As a team, they’ve gone deep 299 times, fighting a battle with the Yankees for the most in the league, and in turn, baseball’s single-season record. Led by a 39-year-old Nelson Cruz, the Twins’ “Bomba Squad” consists of an MLB record five players eclipse 30 home runs this season. Cruz was the first to 40, hitting his 400th career homer in the process.

Max Kepler (36), Miguel Sano (33), Eddie Rosario (32) and Mitch Garver (31) make up the rest of Minnesota’s 30-home run club.

Their individual totals represent career highs, but Garver, a ninth-round draft pick in 2013, is probably the biggest surprise on this list. In 125 games before 2019, he’d only gone deep seven times. But this season, Garver reached 30 homers in 68 fewer at-bats than he had previously taken in his entire career. Unfortunately, Garver was removed from Sunday’s game against the Royals with right hip tightness, which the team claims was precautionary.

Cruz’s .630 slugging percentage is the highest for a single-season in Twins history. Garver’s 2019 mark of .623 is actually second on that list.

There’s more to the Twins’ offense than their prolific power. Though they aren’t the leaders in any one category, the Twins are on pace with the Yankees and Houston Astros — one of which will be their competition in the ALDS — atop most of the league’s offensive rankings.

Jorge Polanco has a team-best 186 hits while producing the Twins’ first 40-double season since Trevor Plouffe in 2014. His 107 runs are the most since Chuck Knoblauch in 1995.

Luis Arraez opened the season with Double-A Pensacola, but is batting .344 in 90 games since. In addition to Cruz, free-agent additions Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez have been key pieces to a Minnesota lineup that’s been without Byron Buxton (shoulder) since early August.

Although the offense tends to steal the show, Minnesota’s pitching has held up its end. The team ranks among the top-10 in overall ERA, with their starter and reliever ERA nearly identical.

Jose Berrios has struggled mightily since August, but he’s got ace potential and entered that difficult stretch with a 2.80 ERA. Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired for a shortstop prospect in February, is the club’s only starter with more strikeouts than innings pitched.

Their rotation will continue to be down a man after Michael Pineda was handed a 60-game suspension after testing positive for a banned diuretic on Sept. 7.

Taylor Rogers settled in as the team’s closer, while Trevor May and Tyler Duffey have been reliable workhorses in the Minnesota bullpen. The addition of Sergio Romo at the trade deadline and top prospect Brusdar Graterol in September give the Twins plenty to choose from for the postseason.

What do they need to win the World Series?

The Bomba Squad cannot stop doing what it’s done all year.

They’ll either have to outslug the Yankees at their own game, overcome the three-headed monster at the front of the Astros’ rotation or both. Regardless of the opponent, it’s more likely that the Twins’ offense would have to bail out their pitching rather than the other way around.

On top of that, Minnesota’s rookie pitchers need to step up in big moments. Graterol, Randy Dobnak, Ryne Harper, Devin Smetzer, Zack Littell and Cody Stashak have all been effective since their debuts. Whoever makes the postseason roster out of that group will likely see some important innings in October.

Lingering questions

What version of Berrios — and the rest of the rotation — will show up for the Twins in October?

Kyle Gibson has sputtered in his past eight appearances, even getting relegated to the bullpen earlier this month. Martin Perez allowed 21 runs in his past 20.2 innings entering the week.

Dobnak and Smetzer have made the most of their recent starter opportunities, but how well can two rookies with less than 100 innings between them be trusted in the playoffs?

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