Five things Twins must do to contend in second half
ST. PAUL—Before heading out with his wife, Renee, for a few days chasing redfish and trout at a fishing camp south of New Orleans, Brian Dozier delivered an impassioned public plea to keep these Twins together.
"We play 162 (games) for a reason," said the second baseman and de facto club spokesman. "I've learned throughout my seven-year career, you can't play the game of baseball in three weeks or three months or the first half/second half. That's not the way it's built."
For Dozier, a prospective free agent and July 31 non-waiver deadline trade candidate, memories remain strong of a 20-win May that pushed the 2015 Twins into contention or the 20-win August that brought the 2017 Twins back from the dead.
Despite uneven play across the first 94 games, he sees no reason it can't happen again, even facing a 7 1/2-game deficit against the two-time defending division champions from Cleveland.
"You ride the wave when it's good," Dozier said. "It's just a beautiful thing if we just assemble teams and see what's at the end after 162 games and see where we're at. This team is capable of doing something special. You saw that last year."
Here are five things that must happen for these Twins to reach the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 2009-10:
1. Run smarter
Eddie Rosario had an all-star worthy first half, but he also got picked off base three times as part of the Twins' stunning total of 13 such gaffes. That put them on pace for 22 pickoffs, which would tie the miserable 1995 Twins, who finished 44 games out of first, for most in franchise history since 1980.
Journeyman outfielder Ryan LaMarre (two pickoffs) already has bounced via waivers to the Chicago White Sox, but those who remain must curb such mistakes while not sacrificing intelligent aggression on the base paths.
They have made a whopping 35 additional outs on the bases, which do not include pickoffs, caught stealing or force plays.
"We're really tried to make our message clear about some of the things that have cost us along the way," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "I don't know if you want to call them 'mental lapses' on the base paths ... but I think those things have cost us at least a handful of games along the way."
2. Strand more
As reliable as Trevor Hildenberger has been out of the Twins' bullpen, he still has allowed a team-worst 57.9 percent (11 of 19) of inherited runners to score. Veteran lefty Zach Duke (54.5 percent) is right behind him.
As a group, Twins relievers have allowed 50 of 136 inherited runners to score. That rate of 36.8 percent isn't just well behind the 28-percent they allowed to score in 2017, it's second-worst in the pen-challenged American League Central.
Only the Kansas City Royals, at 41 percent, have been worse. Ron Gardenhire's Detroit Tigers actually lead the division at 29 percent, followed by a Cleveland group (30.9 percent) that boldly acquired all-star closer and Minnesota native Brad Hand on Thursday from the San Diego Padres.
Much-maligned veteran Matt Belisle leads the Twins in this category; over the past season and a half, he has allowed just 13.5 percent (5 of 37) inherited runners to score.
3. Ignite Dozier
Dozier sent the Twins into the all-star break in style, clubbing a walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning of Sunday's 11-7 victory over Tampa Bay. Could that be a portent of another huge second half for the 31-year-old spark plug?
"This is the time of year he seems to go off," said a rival scout from a club that is closely monitoring Dozier.
Dozier has hit 54 percent of his 167 career homers before the break, but he has a .480 slugging percentage that is 61 points higher when it matters most.
Over the past two full seasons, Dozier has hit 64.5 percent of his home runs (49 of 76) after the break. His hard-hit percentage was just 28.6 before the break, well down from his career average of 33.0 percent, and his strikeout rate on fastballs had spiked from 15.5 percent last season to 18.2 percent this year.
Catch up with a few more heaters, and Dozier could do what he's done in the past: Carry the Twins down the stretch.
4. Summon the cavalry
Two of the Twins' 2017 all-stars, Ervin Santana and Miguel Sano, remain stuck in the minor leagues, working on things.
While the velocity on Santana's fastball has diminished, he did touch 92 mph in his last outing for Triple-A Rochester on Sunday. The 35-year-old right-hander figures to reclaim his spot in the Twins' rotation on this three-city road trip to open the second half, but his effectiveness remains an open question.
Sano, meanwhile, is said to have made significant strides in the areas of conditioning and mechanics, both in the field and at the plate. He was hitting .328 but with little power at Class A Fort Myers before being placed on the temporarily inactive list on Monday.
According to Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll, Sano was granted permission to return home to the Dominican Republic to "deal with a family situation" and was expected to miss no more than a few days.
Returning a healthy Santana and a productive Sano to the Twins' second-half mix could rival any deadline additions for most other clubs.
5. Ignore the schedule
Analyzing what lies ahead can only serve to depress a Twins group that already has enough to worry about.
While the Indians will play just 13 of their final 67 games (19.4 percent) against teams that currently have a winning record — including six combined against the Los Angeles Angels (one game over .500) and the Tampa Bay Rays (two games over) — the Twins are looking at 27 such opponents over their final 68 games (39.7 percent).
Granted, 10 of those games will be against the Indians, against whom the Twins have gone 6-3 thus far, but the teetering Twins also must play four games against the best-in-baseball Boston Red Sox, three apiece against the New York Yankees (29 games over) and Houston Astros (29 over) and seven against the surprising Oakland A's (13 over).
"I don't try to get too far ahead of myself in the math or what we've got to do to win 90 games — it's just counterproductive," Molitor said. "I think Cleveland's got some better ball in store for them, too. We can't worry about them until we're on the other side of the field."