I was there the day the Minnesota Twins’ 2015 playoff hopes died.
On a beautiful, sunny, late fall day, 30,180 other baseball fans and I piled into Target Field for the 161st game of the season, many of us harboring the delusion that perhaps the Twins could win their final two games and make the wild-card race interesting.
The Twins’ 3-1 loss to the Royals the night before, on Oct. 2, certainly took some wind of out or collective sails: The Twins’ wild-card odds had sunk from an unlikely 9.5 percent to an infinitesimal 0.7 percent after losing to K.C. Friday night.
Entering the penultimate game of the season, our expectations were low — just as they were before the season started.
Just a few days removed from something at least approaching playoff fever, it’s easy to forget how dire the Twins’ chances looked entering the 2015 season.
The Twins were picked to finish last by nearly everyone, and with good reason: the three off-season additions to a 92-loss team were Ervin Santana, a league-average starter, who Minnesota signed to the largest free-agent deal in the club’s history; the reanimated corpse of Zombie Torii Hunter, who was signed to provide a “veteran presence” in the clubhouse and hopefully do as little damage as possible on the field; and Tim Stauffer, a serviceable 32-year-old middle reliever, who was inked to a one-year contract.
To say that these deals were train wrecks is an insult to the locomotive industry.
Santana used Seoul Olympics-era steroids 27 years after Ben Johnson and was, big surprise, busted. (Santana, of course, still doesn’t know how the steroids ever entered his body. Wonders never cease.)
He missed the first half of the season and pitched adequately upon his second-half return.
Stauffer pitched a grand total of 15 innings and was an unmitigated disaster, as the Twins released him just two-and-a-half months into the season.
With Hunter, it depends who you ask.
On the one hand, he threw dance parties after wins, had cool handshakes with his teammates and has half of Minnesota convinced that he’s got “Green Mile”-type powers that he imparted on his younger teammates, propelling them to new heights and a warm-and-fuzzy sense of self-belief.
On the other, more factual hand, he had his worst hitting season — batting .240 with a .293 on-base percentage and .409 slugging percentage — since 1999, also known as the year Miguel Sano’s mom threw him a really killer sixth birthday party.
Hunter’s once-superlative fielding skills also continued to deteriorate, as he cost the Twins eight runs in his 123 games in right field, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
If you had sat a Twins fan down before the year and laid out this bleak production from our new signings — coupled with a career-worst season from Joe Mauer and whatever it is Kurt Suzuki thinks he’s doing (it’s not baseball) — 83 wins would have seemed impossible.
Which is why 2015 was such a smashing success.
The youth arrives
For this Twins fan, the most heartening aspect of 2015 was the front office’s clear-eyed assessment of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses.
As the trade deadline approached, there were calls from some parts of Twins Territory to make a splash in the trade market — to leverage our bounty of prospects for an outside chance at a second wild-card spot.
Instead, Terry Ryan and the Twins resisted the urge to mortgage the farm and held on to the young core — Sano, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Adam Brett Walker, Jose Berrios, et al. — while acquiring Kevin Jepsen, who was invaluable down the stretch.
As the normally steady Glen Perkins struggled through injury and faltered when he could pitch, Jepsen buttressed the bullpen, surrendering only five runs over 28 innings, striking out 25 and walking seven — all for the price of two minor league pitchers who didn’t factor into the Twins’ future plans.
The Twins improved ever so slightly, but more importantly they did what we’ve all been waiting for: they let the kids play.
The most obvious breakout star of 2015 was Miguel Sano, who showed a patient approach that belied his youth and relative inexperience while still managing to launch baseballs into heretofore undiscovered parts of Target Field. Sano showed power, patience and, most impressively, poise — the 22-year-old looked comfortable with the scrutiny from day one.
Though his bat hasn’t completely arrived, Aaron Hicks proved himself a strong, rangy centerfielder capable of highlight-reel plays — but perhaps only the second-best centerfielder on the roster, as ultra-prospect Byron Buxton flashed tons of speed and a top-level glove, albeit without the bat to match through his first 46 games.
Eddie Rosario grew into left field, and by the end of the season looked like a long-term solution who should only improve. All four of these youngsters have tons of projection left — and improvements to make — but have all taken a massive first step.
On the pitching side, Kyle Gibson didn’t miss a start, taking the hill 32 times and posting a 3.84 earned-run-average, a mark eight percent better than league average, while Trevor May proved he belongs no matter where the Twins brass elects to put him.
Tyler Duffey was a revelation, relying on his already ubiquitous sweeping slider to compile a 3.24 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 58 innings. The Twins desperately needed a pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff, and they may have found him in Duffey.
A final weekend that mattered
As my friends and I basked in the early October sunshine during the Twins’ penultimate loss — and as the game once again slipped away from the Twins in the late innings — our focus gradually shifted from the play on the field to assessing the season as a whole.
And sure, there was a large dose of bellyaching about Joe Mauer’s anemic slugging percentage and general befuddlement as to how Mike Pelfrey remains employed. But, by and large, the prevailing feeling was one utterly alien to Twins fans over these past five years: hope.
After such encouraging improvements from our young talent and with so much more on the way, the image of a successful Twins team is finally starting to come in to focus. If you squint, you can see it.
On Saturday, we knew we were beat. Our feel-good run was over. We were finished.
But as Miguel Sano strode to the plate, the sun shining down on a group of friends with cold beers in their hands, it was hard to be too upset about it.
It was October. The sun was shining. And the Twins mattered.