Are the Twins for real? They currently lead the American League Central division at 26-15, are second in the AL to the Astros in team batting average and OPS, and two of their starting pitchers are in the AL top ten in ERA (and a third at #11). It's a surprising performance, particularly with a rookie manager (Rocco Baldelli); the Twins weren't necessarily thought of as a sub-first-place team, but in the relatively weak AL Central they were thought of as maybe a bit better than .500 but nothing to write home about. Of course, the Mariners and their fans know full well how an early-season hot streak can lead to false hopes, but come October, Minnesota may well remain a force to be reckoned with.
The Minnesota lineup is anchored by one of the best players you've never heard of, shortstop Jorge Polanco. The switch-hitting Dominican is in his fourth big-league year with the Twins, breaking out in a big way with a .327/.395/.614 slash line in the first quarter of the season. Former Mariner Nelson Cruz, outfielder Eddie Rosario, and catcher Mitch Garver are other key bats in the Twins' order, with 48 extra-base hits between them. Yet their real strength is arguably on the mound; starters Jake Odorizzi, Martín Pérez, and José Barrios have a composite ERA of just 2.86, and the bullpen includes seven pitchers with ERAs lower than 2.58. The M's will thankfully miss Odorizzi's turn in the rotation this series, but will draw former Mariner Michael Pineda, Pérez, Barrios, and veteran Kyle Gibson. Pineda did not pitch last year at all due to injury, but the others all faced the Mariners in 2018; Pérez was 1-1/3.86 in four starts, Barrios 0-2/5.25 in two starts, and Gibson a no decision/4.15 in his only start. Seattle counters with Erik Swanson, Marco Gonzales, Wade LeBlanc, and Yusei Kikuchi, though the order isn't set in stone; LeBlanc will be activated off the injured list at some point during the series.
Mariners vs. José Barrios (CAREER)
Mariners vs. Kyle Gibson (CAREER)
Twins vs. Wade LeBlanc (CAREER)
Twins vs. Yusei Kikuchi (CAREER)
Players to Watch
Michael Pineda: The former Mariner All-Star returns to Seattle for the first time as a Minnesota Twin, trying to make a comeback after missing part of 2017 and all of 2018 to Tommy John surgery. Since leaving in the ill-fated trade with the Yankees for Jesús Montero, Pineda has dealt with a spate of injuries and hasn't performed at the level expected of him. In 40 innings this year, he's posted an unimpressive ERA of 5.85.
Byron Buxton: Possibly the fastest payer in the game today, Buxton would be a 100-steal man in another era. He's started to pick things up with the bat, finally, and is putting together his best offensive season. He currently leads the league in doubles and is in the top ten in stolen bases, but still has an issue with plate discipline—the free-swinger figures to top 150 strikeouts once again this year.
Jorge Polanco: Though he's always been a decent on-base guy, Polanco is putting together a standout year with a .320+ average to go with his near-.400 OBP. Already in 2019 he's had two 5-for-5 games and a four-hit game, plus he's on pace for 30+ home runs (his previous season high was 13 bombs in 2017). If he has a weakness, it's left-handed pitching—against southpaws his slash line is just .250/.294/.438, which is in line with his career averages.
Rocco Baldelli: The onetime Tampa Bay Devil Rays standout had an abbreviated playing career thanks to a series of injuries and illness that was eventually sourced to mitochondrial channelopathy exacerbated by a childhood bout with Lyme disease; a treatment of medications and dietary proscriptions helped some, but he still had to retire as a player at age 29. Since then he's worked for the Rays as a special assistant, roving instructor, first-base coach, and finally as Major League Field Coordinator. The Twins hired him after letting former manager Paul Molitor go following last season. Like Alex Cora with the Red Sox and Aaron Boone with the Yankees, Baldelli assumed the reins of a big-league club without any previous managerial experience.
“You learn something new every day,” Baldelli said of his rookie managerial experience, acknowledging that he still has more to learn. But he's done a bang-up job so far—the Twins are 11 games over .500 a quarter of the way into the season and ahead of second-place Cleveland by four games. They are also among the top home-run-hitting teams, but unlike Seattle manager Scott Servais, Baldelli recognizes that as one element of an offense, not the entirety. “It’s easy to get excited about the home runs," he said, "and they’re great, you know, they help you win games, but I think the [other] at-bats that our guys have been having up and down the lineup [are what] lead you to a good outcome, a successful outcome."
Nelson Cruz: Many Mariner fans were displeased when the club didn't make an effort to re-sign Cruz when his four-year contract ran out after last season. Cruz was arguably the best free-agent signing the Mariners ever made, putting up an impressive .284/.362/.546 line with 163 home runs in his Seattle tenure, but the now-38-year-old didn't fit into the Mariners' future plans. Instead, he signed a one-year-plus-team-option deal with Minnesota, and in his first year there has been just as good as he was with the M's.
Nellie is recovering from a sore wrist and has been out of action for three games; he had an MRI on Monday which was negative for any obvious injury. He expects to play at some point in the Seattle series, but is, as they say, day-to-day.
|Minnesota Twins||(1961 - present)|
|World Champions:||1924, 1987, 1991|
|League Champions:||1925, 1933, 1965|
|Division Titles:||1969, 1970|