MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Twins began the season carrying the indignity of those team-record 103 losses last year, an ugly splotch that hung around like a mosquito that had miraculously survived the winter.
The hangover didn't last long.
With two new executives, the season had a natural fresh-start feeling and pride on the field came trickling back with a four-game winning streak to start things off.
Continued overall improvement and an ability to avoid long losing streaks, coupled with a sluggish start by the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians, allowed the Twins to take the division lead and hold it for five straight weeks until mid-June.
Even after a rough road trip prompted trades of two veteran pitchers for prospects before the non-waiver deadline, these Twins roared back in early August. An onslaught of offense propelled them to the second AL wild card for their first postseason appearance in seven years.
The fun lasted less than four hours in New York, with an 8-4 loss to the Yankees . The game was their 13th consecutive postseason defeat, tying a major league record, and extended for the franchise and its fans a maddening narrative of October failures against the storied Yankees.
Only one player, Joe Mauer, can claim that experience, though. Nobody else on the roster was around in 2010. The confidence built by the 2017 success and the belief in still-unreached potential will be what follows the Twins into the winter. Those who were a part of the 2016 team will always be a trivia-question answer, but the 26-win turnaround this year served as a formal burial of that brutal 59-103 record.
"We're not satisfied by any means, but at the same time you learn from these things," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "Just the optimism that this team has day in and day out, expecting to win every single day, I can't be more proud."
The youth and balance of the lineup is the best asset the Twins will take forward, followed closely by their defense and speed on the bases. What made their surge down the stretch so impressive was the variety of position players who contributed while All-Star third baseman Miguel Sano sat out.
The handful of 30-somethings on the roster, from the $23 million man, Mauer, to backup catcher Chris Gimenez, who was in spring training on a minor league contract, remarked often about this being the most enjoyable season of their careers.
"This is the type of year that can make an old guy feel young," Gimenez said.
Here are some important issues surrounding the Twins heading toward the 2018 season:
Paul Molitor's work put him in strong contention for the AL Manager of the Year award, but he finished his third season on the job on an expiring contract without promise of more from chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine. Molitor's status will be the first order of business, but a dismissal at this point would be difficult to see.
"He does so much, having his hands in on every single thing," Dozier said. "When you've got a guy like that, we feel lucky."
Sano fouled a ball off his left shin on Aug. 19 and didn't return until the final weekend of the regular season, failing to display enough progress to be included on the wild card roster. Sano led the Twins with an .859 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, posting 28 home runs and 77 RBIs in 114 games. His health and conditioning will remain a concern until he can play a full year without going to the disabled list.
Ervin Santana, his wild card clunker at Yankee Stadium aside, gave the Twins a reliable front man for a starting five that stumbled through the previous five seasons. Jose Berrios made major strides after a bad rookie year. Kyle Gibson bounced back from two Triple-A demotions, with the Twins winning each of his last eight starts. But help is still needed.
Adalberto Mejia had a mixed at best rookie season. Bartolo Colon will be 45 next year. Phil Hughes and Trevor May are coming off surgeries. Trading for an established veteran is likely the quickest avenue to improvement.
Glen Perkins likely threw his final pitch for the Twins after an inspired comeback from a shoulder injury. Brandon Kintzler, who along with one-start-and-done pitcher Jaime Garcia was dealt at the deadline, will be a candidate to re-sign. Kintzler's replacement, Matt Belisle, is also a free agent. Determining the 2018 closer is another top item to settle.
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