Column: Little things add up in Twins' turnaround
If there is an excellent lesson from this baseball season, it may very well be that the little things matter.
Just ask the Minnesota Twins.
Little things are little until you start to add a bunch of them up.
Throwing to the wrong base from the outfield is a little thing.
Keeping the double play alive is a little thing.
Hitting the cut-off man is a little thing.
Keep doing those, and they aggregate and you end up terrible.
And so we have the Twins, who clinched a postseason berth on Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Angels dropped a 6-4 decision in 10 innings to the White Sox in Chicago.
Minnesota lost 103 games last season, including 29 by one run. The Twins are the first team to go from a 100-loss season to the playoffs. They last played in the postseason in 2010.
Minnesota fielded an especially young roster in 2016. The Twins were 14-29 in one-run game because they didn't do the little things. So the idea from the start of spring training was to get back to the fundamentals. It's probably not what big leaguers focus on, but for these Twins, it was.
"We got away from the fundamental aspects of our game if you watched us last year. We lost a ton of one-run games that were the result of miscues at the defensive end. I don't even mean errors," second baseman Brian Dozier said last week in New York.
"I'm talking about little things that are supposed to happen every time. ... That wasn't the fault of not knowing what to do. We're young and the game got sped up for a lot of people.
"At spring training, the No. 1 thing we talked about -- the whole first week -- was getting that cleaned up. And you got back to Baseball 101. Once we got that down then that stuff came natural and we could rely on our talent because the fundamentals were going to be there."
Plenty can happen in the final days of the season, but the Twins seem on a collision course with the Yankees for the American League wild-card game. One game for all the marbles and a berth, against -- possibly -- the Cleveland Indians in the AL Division Series.
Born in those days in spring training and blossoming in August, the Twins are a very dangerous team. After starting 0-9 in 2015 and again in 2016 they see what 'uphill' means.
"The previous two years we started out 0-9. In '15, we rebounded but not enough and came up a game short of the division (title). In '16, it was straight downhill. Getting off to a good start was a must ... to show the young guys we can win."
And here's where the wrinkle comes in.
The Twins were above .500 in April and May and just 14-15 in June. As the July 31 trade deadline approached, the front office wanted to add to the roster (small-market style). They added Jaime Garcia from Atlanta as well as ageless former Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon.
The drive was on. Then it went haywire.
Minnesota lost 12 of 17 at the end of July and the start of August. The front office did a new calculation and the team a became seller. After all, the Twins were 50-53 at the end of July.
Garcia was shipped to the Yankees. Closer Brian Kintzler -- the Twins' lone AL All-Star -- was traded to Washington. It was supposed to over. And then the Twins won 20 in August. They are better than .500 in September.
"It kind of made everybody a little mad," Dozier said. "It is that we got mad and started playing with a chip on our shoulder but I think we've been playing that way all season. Our big hiccup was leading up to the trading deadline and that was put the front office in position to do that."
As always, the reason for success is shared. Dozier has hit 33 homers and driven in 90. Eduardo Escobar has 27 homers and 78 RBIs. Ervin Santana is 16-8 with a 3.36 ERA. Jose Berrios is 13-8 with a 3.93 ERA.
In New York, Aaron Judge's spectacular 50-homer season isn't the reason the Yankees are likely to make the playoffs and host the Twins in the AL wild-card game.
There also is a character to this Twins' team. On five occasions, they've been down five runs in a game and come back to win.
As to the future, wild-card games are unpredictable. They lost all three last week to the Yankees, but as manager Paul Molitor said, "I've played in New York in the postseason and it's a good experience for our young players to play here for the first time."
Should the Twins advance to meet Cleveland, they have beaten the Tribe at home in six of eight contests.
Byron Buxton -- as well as Dozier, Joe Mauer and surprising 27-homer hitter Eduardo Escobar -- could be a key player. He was terrible at the plate early, hitting between .195 and .218 during July. Since Kintzler was dealt, he is batting .305 with 11 home runs, 35 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 53 games.
"People step up in those situations, but Buxton is different," Dozier said of the 2012 first-round pick. "Without him in center field, we're a totally different team. When he struggled at the plate, we didn't really care what he hit. I've never seen an outfielder change a game as much as I have with him this year. I don't mean the crazy robbing home runs. I mean the balls that I see center fielders not get to that he tracks down. It makes everybody better.
"He can dominate a game from a defensive spot."
Going into the postseason, the Twins are likely the longest shot to win. But that's normal for them. The interesting part lies ahead.