By throttling the Royals 10-3 at Target Field last night for their fifth straight victory, the Twins were able to expand their lead in the AL Central to 4 1/2 games, thanks to a White Sox loss in Detroit. Having built up a seven-game lead over the Rangers in the win/loss column, the Twins' latest hot streak has helped ensure that they'll get home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs should they get there. By quietly moving within 2 1/2 games of the Rays in the standings, the Twins have also positioned themselves for a possible wild card berth in the event that the Sox manage to overtake them in the AL Central.
That the Twins have gotten to this point is impressive. That they've done it without the services of Justin Morneau almost defies belief.
Consider this: When Kendry Morales seriously injured his knee while celebrating a walk-off home run back on May 29, the Angels were 3 1/2 games out in the AL West. He hasn't played since, and the Angels now find themselves 9 1/2 games out in September -- effectively eliminated from the postseason.
The Twins were 1 1/2 games out after Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7. But instead of folding faced with the loss of their best hitter, the Twins regrouped and made a second-half charge with help from a number of contributors who were able to step up. Now, they find themselves in the favorable situation I described above.
Morneau and Morales both served as key sluggers in the middle of their respective lineups. Both are widely viewed as elite players; Morales finished fifth in the AL MVP voting last year, while Morneau finished second the year before. Both injuries were flukes, but both were the type that could potentially ruin a season.
The Twins deserve a lot of credit for refusing to fall apart despite Morneau's lingering absence. He's been gone for so long now that it's hard to remember, but the Canadian slugger essentially carried the Twins offense through the first couple months of the season. When he went down, Morneau led the league in OPS and was looking more locked in at the plate than ever before in his career. He was an MVP front-runner, and yet somehow the Twins have managed to sustain his loss without flinching.
The Twins are on pace to win 96 games. They rank first in the American League in batting average. Third in OPS. Fourth in runs per game. They've done this without Morneau -- who was the league's best hitter -- for 40 percent of the season. That is some kind of amazing.
A multitude of factors have made it possible. Joe Mauer hit .400 in the weeks following the All-Star break, picking his game up when the team was in desperate need. The value of Michael Cuddyer, who has played a very decent first base while contributing with the bat, has been underrated. Jim Thome has somehow morphed back into one of the league's most feared hitters at the age of 40, while making $1.5 million (can someone get Bill Smith a trophy already?). The Twins are getting production from third base that they never expected.
And on top of it all, there's a captain who's been holding the leaking ship together, just like he did last year when the Twins lost their star slugger down the stretch. Managers get judged by fans based on a lot of trivial minutia, but ultimately it comes down to winning and Ron Gardenhire has overseen an awful lot of winning. This year, he's paced to lead a flawed and injury-riddled team to 96 wins and a sixth division title in nine years.
Bill Smith's trophy can wait. This year, I think Gardy deserves his.