By defeating the Indians yesterday while the White Sox fell to the Royals, the Twins overtook the top spot in the AL Central for the first time since May. At this point in the season, being ahead of the Sox by a half-game really isn't much different from being behind them by a half-game, but it still feels good to be in first place.
Things have been coming together quite nicely for this team. Conventional wisdom stated that this young and inexperienced group of players would improve over the course of the season, and so far that has proven to be the case. Just look at the team's month-by-month OPS totals:
Meanwhile, the pitching has held steady and, if yesterday's game is any indication, the addition of Francisco Liriano to the rotation could pay large dividends down the stretch. If he can continue to pitch well and the other young starters can stay the course, the Twins' rotation is essentially without weakness. That's important, and probably more important than a modest upgrade at third base, which is why I'm glad to hear that Bill Smith shied away from the Mariners' reported request of Blackburn/Slowey/Perkins plus prospects for Adrian Beltre.
With the current rotation, the Twins can be confident that each night they'll be sending out a hurler capable of delivering a strong outing and giving the team a chance to win. The offense, as noted above, has been improving each month and should be able to hold up over the rest of the season. As teams increasingly start to pitch around Justin Morneau, the impetus will be on guys like Jason Kubel, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer (if he ever returns). One key player to watch will be Brian Buscher. Many people seem unsold on him -- thus the cries of outrage that the Twins didn't acquire an established third baseman at the deadline -- but at some point people need to start giving the man his dues. While his track record prior to 2007 is certainly spotty, he's done nothing but tear up minor-league pitching since coming over the organization last year and he's now hitting .314/.341/.432 over 115 at-bats with the Twins this season. And while some are convinced that he can't be a regular player, I'm not sure where this sentiment came from. His poor numbers in 23 plate appearances against lefties this year hardly provide compelling evidence, especially considering that he's always held his own against southpaws in the minors, including an 843 OPS against them in Rochester this season.
Shortstop and second base will be the team's chief areas of concern as long as Alexi Casilla is out of the lineup. Nick Punto is holding his own and Brendan Harris has hit well recently, so it will be interesting to see whether both those trends hold through the end of the season. If they do, the Twins should be in good shape on the offensive side of the ball. Combine a bullpen that can get the job done on most nights, and the Twins certainly should be capable of sticking with the White Sox all the way to the bitter end.
Most realistic fans didn't view this season as one where the Twins would be likely to contend. Yet, here on August 4, this group of young players (younger now with two of the veteran offseason acquisitions sent packing) finds itself in first place and in control of its own destiny. With the powerful White Sox breathing down their backs and a whole lot of road games coming up in the next 30 days, these young men will really have their fortitude put to the test.