The Twins Power to the Playoffs, Where ‘Anything Can Happen’

BOSTON — In the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday night, Minnesota Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli noticed something strange in center field. Reaching down to collect a hit was Max Kepler, who was supposed to be in right field.

“We don’t really survey the field and go over the lineup card to make sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be,” Baldelli said later, but Kepler and Jake Cave had switched positions by mistake, without the bench noticing. The next inning, Baldelli put them in their intended spots.

The mix-up had no bearing on the game, but it was an amusing reminder that even things that should be a given — like where to play in the first inning — sometimes don’t go as planned in baseball. In a season that has been defined by the dominance of the Yankees and the Houston Astros in the American League, the Twins have an alternate script in mind for the playoffs.

At 87-53 after a thrilling win over the Red Sox on Thursday night, the Twins have already won two more games than they did in 1987, when they captured the first of their two World Series titles. Their winning percentage entering this weekend’s series with the Cleveland Indians was .621, a figure topped by just three teams in franchise history: two pennant winners as the Washington Senators, and a 1965 Twins team that also reached the World Series.

“I knew we were going to hit homers, and we had conversations in spring training where I’d say we have a really good team, we have something special here,” said Nelson Cruz, the veteran designated hitter. “But, I mean, this is remarkable what we’re doing — to do it consistently, every day, and not only from the guys you expect.”

In this season of unprecedented power in the majors, no team does it better than the Twins. Eight players have hit at least 20 homers, including Cruz, who has bashed 35 for the sixth year in a row. The Twins broke the 2018 Yankees’ major league record for homers in a season (267) on Aug. 31, and had 272 through Thursday.

With all those homers and victories, perhaps the Twins should be considered among the majors’ power elite, with the Astros, the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But with no A.L. Central titles since 2010 — and losses in their last 13 playoff games, including 10 to the Yankees — the Twins are not quite there.

“Not yet, I don’t think so,” said the broadcaster Jim Kaat, the ace pitcher of the 1965 A.L. champions. “Once they — if they — were to beat the Yankees, then you’d say, ‘Wow,’ because they’ve never been able to beat the Yankees. So they have to get over that hump. They’ve got a good team to win the Central and get to the playoffs, but that next step — let’s face it, the Yankees and Houston, their bullpens are seasoned.”

The Twins have feasted on the also-rans of the Central division (Detroit, Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox), going 31-13. But they have also played respectably against the Yankees and the Astros (6-7), averaging more than five runs a game. As they peek ahead to October, they are conceding nothing.

“Anything can happen, and teams that are built for instant offense usually have a good result in the playoffs because they can score at will,” starter Jake Odorizzi said. “That’s what the playoffs is: momentum swings and being able to capitalize on mistakes. In the postseason you’re facing really good teams with good pitching — and good pitching sometimes can be beaten by one or two home runs.”

With Baltimore in 2014, Cruz hit a two-run homer in Detroit to beat David Price, 2-1, and seal a three-game division series sweep. In that series, the Orioles also won games started by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer of Detroit. Their starters were the unheralded Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Chris Tillman, but their bullpen was stingy.

Through that lens, these Twins have a shot. Starters Odorizzi and Jose Berrios made the All-Star team — though Berrios has struggled lately — and the Twins traded in July for the veteran Sergio Romo, a postseason stalwart. The setup men Tyler Duffey and Trevor May have combined to allow just two runs in the last six weeks, and Taylor Rogers has 24 saves and a 2.49 E.R.A. Their rotation took a big hit on Saturday, however, when it was announced that the right-hander Michael Pineda had been suspended 60 games after testing positive for a banned substance.

Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, came to Minnesota in late 2016 from the Indians, who nearly won a title that fall by aggressively using relievers to cover for a mostly shaky rotation. Last October, the Milwaukee Brewers got within a game of the World Series by never letting a starter work six innings and using an opener several times.

The Twins might not have Andrew Miller, Cody Allen or Josh Hader — the dominant relievers for Cleveland and Milwaukee in their playoff runs — but they will try to follow a similar path.

“I look at some teams from last year and marvel at what the Brewers were able to do in terms of matching up and finding the right fits in a playoff series,” Falvey said. “There’s different ways you’re going to have to think about it with each team. The five guys that have gone out for us this year have been really good, and we have some guys behind them in the bullpen we think can match up really well. Our method to this is probably not going to be traditional.”

Falvey’s off-season bets have paid off. He fired the Hall of Famer Paul Molitor as manager and hired Baldelli, 37, the former Tampa Bay outfielder, scout and coach who had never managed. He hired a pitching coach, Wes Johnson, who was working for the University of Arkansas and had never coached professionals.

Falvey also gave five-year contract extensions to Kepler ($35 million) and shortstop Jorge Polanco ($25.75 million), though Kepler had hit .224 last season and Polanco had served an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. This season, Kepler has 36 homers and 90 R.B.I., while Polanco is hitting .302 and started in the All-Star Game.

“You have to look at the player and say, ‘What are the underlying characteristics of this player that we think can get better, from a talent standpoint, and will they work to try to become that player?’” Falvey said.

“With Jorge, coming off the suspension, it was tough. He took full ownership and accountability for that, learned some things about who to trust, who to be around and what decisions to make.

Others have also had their best seasons, including left fielder Eddie Rosario (28 homers, 94 runs batted in), catcher Mitch Garver (26 homers) and the versatile rookie Luis Arraez (.343 average in 73 games). Rosario ended Thursday’s game by throwing out Rafael Devers at the plate to preserve a heart-pounding, one-run victory.

“It was a perfect way to end the game, a phenomenal throw — strong, accurate,” Baldelli said. “As big of a moment as we’ve had all year long, in any game.”

The Twins will soon have a chance for more big moments in October, after one of the finest regular seasons in the history of a flagship A.L. franchise. Does that make the Twins a serious title contender? It really does not matter.

“We just try to let our game prove that to the onlookers,” Kepler said. “But we’re the best offensive team in the league and the numbers speak for that. I don’t know — why not?”