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Twins encountering much tougher AL Central than they’ve seen lately

CLEVELAND — When the 2023 season concluded, the Twins were the lone team in their division to finish above .500. The next closest team, the Detroit Tigers, finished six games under that mark as the American League Central finished as one of the worst divisions in history.

No longer.

If the Twins are to defend their title — they’re currently in third place and were just swept by the Cleveland Guardians on the road — they’ll have a much harder go of it. The AL Central has four teams at or above .500 — Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit — the most of any division in baseball.

“The first month and a half, I don’t know how it could be much more competitive,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “There’s some clubs playing really good. Pitching exceptionally well. … It’s like every game you’re running into now in this division, you’re going to have to do some really good work offensively and have a tremendous plan and have tremendous at-bats in order to win the game.”

Cleveland tailed off last year, but is atop the division this year, now 5 1/2 games ahead of the Twins.

Kansas City, led by the youngster, Bobby Witt Jr., and the veteran, Salvador Perez, currently sits in second place, 1 1/2 games out, after finishing with the second-worst record in the American League last year. They won their 28th game on Saturday, a mark they didn’t hit until mid-July last season.

And the Tigers, at .500 after a loss on Sunday, have been among the best pitching teams in the majors, led by ace Tarik Skubal.

“We saw the Royals last year and how young they were, and they obviously weren’t in it. But they were very competitive,” center fielder Byron Buxton said. “There was a good, young group, and they just let them go out and play. And you could tell the confidence and just the experience of them playing last year. You can tell it shows a little bit more this year by how well they’re playing. … Detroit is young. Cleveland, they’re always good. It’s just changing.”

Only the Chicago White Sox are out of contention — and while the Twins are 7-0 against them, they’ve provided some challenges for other division foes.

All that has made things much more challenging for the Twins, who came into the season projected to win the division for the second straight year but have been a streaky team — in both directions — for the first month and a half of the season.

“I still don’t know how it’s all going (to come) together for us or any other club this year,” Baldelli said. “What I do know is that you better be ready to show up to work when you’re playing these teams right now.”

Jackson DFA’d

A day after he gave up four runs against the Guardians, ballooning his earned-run average to 6.85, the Twins officially designated veteran reliever Jay Jackson for assignment.

The Twins signed Jackson, 36, to a major league deal this offseason. It was the first time in his career he had landed a major league deal after a long journey that has taken him through multiple major league organizations and to Japan.

“If he can find a way to keep throwing to get his velocity back up to where it was last year, I think he has a chance to be really successful,” Baldelli said. “He came in this year, and the stuff so far has been a little bit down compared to where it was last year. I think that does matter. That’s definitely part of it.”

While Baldelli expressed hope that he would clear waivers and remain in the organization, Jackson was out of options, which meant they had to designate him for assignment to remove him from the 26-man roster.

In his place, the Twins called up Caleb Boushley to add to the bullpen.

Briefly

The Twins will head to Washington’s Nationals Park for the first time since the 2016 season for a series beginning on Monday. They’ll face off against multiple former Twins, including Eddie Rosario and Joey Gallo. … Pablo López, Joe Ryan and Simeon Woods Richardson will take on the Nationals.

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