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Dan-ecdotes: Summer may not be so bad, Twins fans

I wasn't really planning to tune into Fox Sports North much this summer. Why sit in front of the TV for several hours when the 30-second highlights will tell me exactly how bad the Twins are?

At the start of the year, I forecasted the "big four" Minnesota sports teams and said the Twins are understandably in the throes of rebuilding a franchise, but that doesn't make for very entertaining baseball. My love of the Twins will never waver, but I wasn't sure I wanted to watch them lose another 100 games. In a situation like that, I'm more than happy to just read about it online.

After the first two months of the season, I'm starting to think - and, perhaps foolishly, hope - that won't happen.

As of Monday, June 5, the Twins are 29-24 on the season and somehow leading the American League Central. I know that isn't exactly an amazing record - they are just one game ahead of the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians, and a lot can happen between now and October - but I wasn't expecting the Twins to be within sniffing distance of a record around .500, let alone a winning record, all season.

Plus, that is a better record than several recent top-tier teams like the Royals, Tigers, Mets and Blue Jays. They even have a better win percentage than the defending world champion Chicago Cubs for the moment. For some reason, I find that somewhat satisfying.

Now, am I expecting the Twins to win the division? Not really, no. Slip into the playoffs? I doubt it. Win the World Series? Not without a few blockbuster trades.

But maybe, just maybe, the Twins won't be unwatchable this summer. Hey, I'm a Minnesota sports fan. Having my teams be watchable is about all I can ask for.

The thing making the Twins successful so far is one of the more uncharacteristic things of this team so far in this decade: their pitching has looked relatively good.

Looks can be deceiving, however, as they haven't really been spectacular on the mound. Their overall ERA of 4.60 is the third-worst in the American League, but they have allowed the sixth-fewest walks.

The pitching staff also has the fewest strikeouts in the majors, which is bad, but it's hard to complain when the Twins defense has coughed up the second-fewest errors in all of baseball, properly fielding on 98.9 percent of their opportunities. Any pitcher will look great when the defense behind him is relatively impenetrable.

One noteworthy difference in the pitching rotation from April 2016 and April 2017 is that Ervin Santana was not suspended for the first 80 games of this season. Maybe that makes all the difference, as he is currently 7-3 - winning his first five starts - in 12 starts with a 2.44 ERA, which is the fourth-best in Major League Baseball so far. The season is young, but those are solid numbers.

One other pleasant surprise on the mound has been young right-hander Jose Berrios. Things weren't great for him (or the team, or the fans) last season - he had a 6.48 ERA in 16 starts - but in five starts this season, he has pitched for at least six innings four times and has an ERA of 2.76. He even struck out 11 batters against the Colorado Rockies Thursday, May 18. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's the first Minnesota pitcher to strike out 11 in one of his first 16 starts since Bert Blyleven did it 47 years ago.

Though I am pleasantly surprised in the season so far, I still don't have high hopes for this team - not when they rank 20th in batting average, 20th in runs scored and 24th in total bases. Your defense can be stellar and your pitching solid, but you won't win many games if you don't score runs.

Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are often viewed as this team's future, yet the two have combined to strike out 136 times in 50 games this season. Buxton in particular currently boasts a batting average of .193 with just 10 RBIs - easily the worst on the team for players with more than 75 at-bats. Luckily, he is a nightly highlight reel in center field, but that offensive output is not OK.

Sano has been sorting things out lately - he currently has a batting average of .303, leads the team with 14 home runs and is second in the American League with 43 RBIs. I know it's easy for an armchair quarterback (sorry, I can't think of a baseball-equivalent term) like myself to sit here and criticize a guy getting a hit in roughly one-third of his at-bats, but is it too much to ask for a little plate discipline from a guy with 78 strikeouts?

Former golden boy Joe Mauer - who has inexplicably batted cleanup a time or two this season - has just 15 extra-base hits in 178 at-bats. A batting average of .287 is respectable, but it is usually preferable to have a little power hitting from a first baseman and middle-of-the-lineup batter, especially when that batter makes $23 million a year.

Hopefully, they can turn things around at the plate, but I'm worried we will continue a trend that has been all too common at Target Field since it was built - on the rare occurrence the Twins have solid pitching, the offense doesn't back it up.

But so far, the team has been solid. After dreading this season before it started, I am perfectly happy watching a team that ends up in a semi-competitive place in the standings and keeps games interesting.

I guess I'm easy to please.

Dan Determan
Staff Writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper
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