Michael Cuddyer of the Minnesota Twins celebrates a win against the Texas Rangers following of their game on June 12, 2011 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Twins defeated the Rangers 6-1. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The Minnesota Twins stumbled and fell badly out of the gate this season, falling to as many as 20 games under .500. But don't count them out of playoff contention just yet.
The Minnesota Twins got off to a terrible start in every way. After losing their fourth in a row, to the Rays on April 16, they were 4-10 and already six games out of first place, with the Cleveland Indians off to a hot start.
Their All-Star catcher, Joe Mauer, went to the disabled list with a mysterious leg problem eventually diagnosed as "bilateral leg weakness". The man they were counting on to be their No. 1 starter, Francisco Liriano, posted a 9.13 ERA in April. Justin Morneau didn't hit, apparently still suffering afterffects from last year's concussion. They still had a solid bullpen -- oh, wait; no, they didn't, because several of last year's solid relievers (Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch) are all pitching for other teams in 2011. Joe Nathan came back from last year's injury -- and promptly went back on the DL.
What a mess -- and it got worse for last year's 94-win AL Central champs. They kept losing. When they lost their seventh in a row, to the Mariners on May 16, they dropped to 12-27 and 13.5 games behind. And if Twins fans thought that was the bottom, their team then proceeded to lose 10 of their next 15 to sit at 17-37, 20 games under .500 and 16.5 games out of first place.
And then... good things began to happen. The pitching solidified -- Liriano, after throwing a no-hitter against the White Sox coming into the game with that 9.13 ERA, nearly threw another one Sunday. He's got a 1.89 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in his last six starts. Michael Cuddyer, who got off to a terrible start, is hitting .306/.373/.485 since May 1. Mauer, Nathan and Jim Thome are just about ready to come off the DL -- and the Twins have won nine of their last 11 and shaved 7.5 games off that deficit in those 11 games, thanks to the Indians' collapse (the Tribe has lost nine of 10) and the rest of the division treading water. And the Twins' next series is against their favorite punching bags, the White Sox, at home; Minnesota is 27-11 against Chicago since the start of the 2009 season (including two wins this year during their rough start).
As far as I can tell, no team has ever come from 20 games under .500 to win a division or pennant. The famous 1914 "Miracle" Braves, who were in last place on July 4, bottomed out at 16 under. The 1973 Mets, who won the NL East with an 82-79 record after being last on Aug. 30, were no worse than 13 under at any time during that season. In 1987, the Twins themselves won the AL West with a mediocre 85-77 record -- but were never more than a game under .500 that year.
But the Twins not only have a roster filled with playoff race-tested stars that are coming back right at the time the team is heating up, they have one of the best managers in the game in Ron Gardenhire, who has led them to six postseason appearances in the last nine years.
Finally, the Indians, who got off to that great start, have come back to Earth. They currently have a .540 winning percentage; if the division is won at .540, it'll take 87 wins. The Twins would have to go 61-36 to do that, a .629 pace. Tough, but surely not impossible, especially since the Twins still have 16 games remaining against the White Sox and 13 remaining with the Indians -- a team they've already won four of five from in spite of their bad start.
It's June 13 and the Twins still have the worst record in the AL in spite of their current run. But don't be surprised if you see them lining up along a baseline for baseball in October.