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Cinderella in October

With the Yankees first, followed up by presumptive matchups against the Indians, Astros, and then Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins are this postseason’s upset special

Byron Buxton, Brian Dozier, and Kyle Gibson Getty Images/Ringer illustration
2017 MLB Playoffs

No matter how successful the Minnesota Twins are, there’s always the whiff of the underdog to them. Since 1987, they’ve made the playoffs nine times (more than the big-market Mets, Phillies, and Astros) and won two World Series (more than perennial contenders like the Braves, Dodgers, and A’s). But even their successes come in the shadow of failure. The 1991 World Series team had finished dead last in the seven-team AL West the year before, and after nearly being contracted after the 2001 season, the Twins responded by going 94-67 and winning the AL Central in 2002 to kick off a stretch of six playoff appearances in the next nine seasons. The best baseball movie of all time, Little Big League, is about an underdog Twins team that broke new ground in both sabermetrics and montages.

Now the real-life Twins have a montage of their own, courtesy of Twins Daily writer Parker Hageman and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Try to watch it without getting choked up.

That underdog reputation isn’t going away anytime soon, either—just to make the divisional round, the Twins have to go on the road to face not just any favorite but the actual Yankees. If they go further they’ll have to navigate an unusually tough playoff field: First, the Cleveland Indians, who have been the best team in baseball in the second half. Then, the 101-win Houston Astros, and perhaps after that a Dodgers team that was at one point on pace to tie the all-time MLB wins record.

The Twins don’t really have a realistic shot at making a run in the playoffs, but my favorite thing about their season is that, even as late as the July trade deadline, their own front office didn’t even think they had a realistic shot at making the postseason at all.

On July 24, the Twins were 49-49, 3.5 games back of the division lead, and traded for Braves lefty Jaime García, who won his first start for Minnesota. It was the Twins’ only win in a five-game stretch that seemed to convince their front office, led by first-year chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, to punt on the season. So, just six days after acquiring him, Minnesota flipped García to the Yankees. The next day they sent All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler to Washington, effectively waving a white flag on the season.

By August 5, the Twins sat at 52-56, seven games out of the AL Central lead with six teams to climb over before they could grab the second wild card. Even that middling season looked like a vast improvement over the 59-103 campaign of 2016, but since then they’re 32-21, good enough to rise out of a cesspool of mediocrity in the AL wild-card race.

Some things have been going well all year—Ervin Santana is seventh among AL starters in WAR and second in innings pitched, and diminutive second-year righty José Berrios has been electric all year. Second baseman Brian Dozier has a 126 OPS+ in 152 games, and the team’s best hitter, the gregarious and humungous third baseman Miguel Sanó, missed most of the past two months with a stress reaction in his shin, and only just returned to DH duty over the weekend.

But the rest of the pieces are finally falling into place. Kyle Gibson, once the avatar for the disappointing pitch-to-contact archetype that has plagued the Twins’ player development over the past decade, is 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA since the break, with 70 strikeouts in 76.2 innings. Eddie Rosario, a talented corner outfielder who never got on base, is still not walking all that much, but his 6.0 percent walk rate nearly doubles his career average heading into this season, and now he’s hitting .290 with 27 home runs, so it doesn’t matter if he walks or not. Seventeen of those homers have come since the break, and he’s hitting .292/.331/.558 in that span.

But the most important change has come courtesy of Byron Buxton. Drafted second overall in 2012 behind Carlos Correa, Buxton was the jewel of the Twins’ farm system for years., Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus all ranked Buxton as the first- or second-best prospect in baseball in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but since arriving in Minnesota full time last year, he’d struggled to hit consistently. This year, Buxton’s in-season batting average didn’t reach .200 until May 31, and his OBP didn’t hit .300 until August 12, but he stayed in the lineup because he’s so fast, and so good defensively in center field, that he doesn’t have to hit to be valuable.

It’s unbelievable that a baseball player can be as fast as Buxton. And in the past three months, he’s been red hot at the plate too. Since the break, Buxton is hitting .300/.347/.546, with 11 home runs, 13 stolen bases in 13 attempts, and one of these catches about once every week.

Baseball Prospectus has Buxton as a four-win player in 2017 even after he hit like a pitcher for three months. If the Twins beat the Yankees, Buxton will be a near lock to be this year’s postseason Javy Báez–style one-man highlight reel, but he’s also contributing much more than Báez did offensively last year.

Good as Buxton, Sanó, and Dozier are, and fun as the underdog reputation is, there are several reasons that the Twins are the least likely of the 10 playoff teams to win the World Series. Absent the departed Kintzler, no Twins reliever with more than 40 innings pitched has an ERA below 3.00. They’re ninth among the 10 playoff teams, and 22st overall, in team DRA. Even with good defenders like Buxton, Dozier, and Jason Castro, the Twins are just 20th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. If they’re going to make a run, they’ll have to do it the way a 12th-seeded Missouri Valley Conference basketball team would make a run in March Madness—rely on their stars, try to grind out close games, and don’t make any mistakes.

But the reason everyone loves March Madness, gambling notwithstanding, is that every year some Midwestern school that nobody’s ever heard of gets hot at the right time and punches Duke in the mouth. Seldom has the MLB playoff bracket been so full of Dukes to punch, and there is no scrappier underdog in this year’s playoffs than Minnesota.