3 Things to Know: Mariners host Twins in potential playoff preview

Jun 28, 2024, 9:24 AM | Updated: 9:24 am

Seattle Mariners vs. Minnesota Twins...

Edouard Julien of the Minnesota Twins steals second base during a 2024 game. (David Berding/Getty Images)

(David Berding/Getty Images)

After a disappointing 3-6 road trip, the American League West-leading Seattle Mariners (46-37) return to the friendly confines of T-Mobile Park this weekend for a potential playoff series preview with the Minnesota Twins.

Key player exits early for Twins, the Seattle Mariners’ next opponent

The Twins (45-36) currently hold the second American League wild cart spot and are 7 1/2 games behind the AL-best Cleveland Guardians in the suddenly formidable AL Central.

With an intriguing showdown with Minnesota opening Friday, Twins beat reporter Dan Hayes of The Athletic joined host Curtis Rogers on Seattle Sports’ Extra Innings on Thursday for a discussion about Seattle’s next challenger.

The streakiest team in baseball

Minnesota has had an incredibly up-and-down season despite being nine games above .500. It’s been so up and down that Hayes called the Twins the streakiest team he’s ever seen in his 18 years covering MLB.

The Twins started the season 6-12, which included a five-game losing streak. Soon after, they surged to 19-13 on the strength of a 12-game winning streak. Minnesota nearly fell back to .500 with a seven-game losing streak in mid-May, but immediately bounced back with an 8-2 stretch. The Twins then lost five in a row in early June, but rebounded again by winning seven of eight, including six in a row.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Hayes said. “You ask guys around the clubhouse, you ask coaches, nobody understands it. It has been strange because for six days they will look like the best team in baseball, and then for five days they’ll look like one of the worst.”

Haynes noted that Minnesota has dealt with a number of key injuries to its lineup throughout the season, including Royce Lewis, Carlos Correa, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton.

“They’ve shown capable of handling and weathering storms,” Hayes said, “and I think that’s something that will pay some big dividends for them all season long, because their offense is finally healthy right now.”

A young star and familiar veteran to watch

The Twins feature one of the more tantalizing young talents in baseball right now in third baseman Royce Lewis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. When healthy, Lewis has looked like one of the best players in MLB.

Lewis has slugged 10 home runs in just 21 games this season, and he’s posted an eye-popping .307/.366/.592 slash line with an absurd 215 OPS+ in that small sample size. He also hit .309 with 15 homers in just 58 games last season, and had four home runs in six postseason games.

Hayes pointed out that Lewis’ career trajectory has taken twists and turns to get where he is now. Lewis was close to the majors in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic relegated him to Minnesota’s alternate training site in the shortened season. He then showed up to spring training in 2021 and had a torn ACL that was discovered during his check-in physical. Lewis tore his ACL again in 2022, and he missed two months this season after suffering a quad strain running the bases on opening day.

“I do think that there is a superstar potentially in there if he can learn how to stay on the field,” Hayes said. “That’s a huge ‘if’ at this point. I think he is learning to play where he is not all-out 100% – or actually more like 110% – every play, where he’s like busting down the line on routine grounders to third. They have tried to coach some of that into him where it’s like, ‘Look dude, you hit a routine groundball, 99.5% of the time that play is made. Don’t kill yourself for this. Kill yourself when it matters.’ And I think that we’ve seen a little bit of a kinder, gentler voice on the field in between, and it hasn’t taken away his ability to be an impact player.”

While the 25-year-old Lewis appears to be a budding star if he can stay healthy, a much older player that played a major role in the Mariners’ 2022 playoff run has also made an impact. That would be switch-hitting first baseman Carlos Santana.

Santana recently played his 2,000th career game, which is something Hayes noted only 251 players have ever done, a number smaller than the amount of players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 74 games this season, Santana is slashing .251/.332/.443 with 13 doubles, 12 home runs, 38 RBIs and a 120 OPS+.

“I think he’s that guy that they look at and they go, he’s 38 and he’s putting all this work in to do this, and he’s done it so successful for so long that (it’s like), man, what’s his secret?” Hayes said. “He’s got a good voice for that group because look, this is a talented club and I think they have plenty of leadership in Carlos Correa and guys who have been around forever like Buxton and Kepler (and) Pablo Lopez also is great at that, but Santana has just come in and been himself.”

As he did with Seattle in 2022, Santana has come through in big moments for the Twins.

“The way he’s performed has brought a lot for them because there were a few times where he carried them,” Hayes said. “There was a series in Toronto where I think he hit home runs on three consecutive days. Two of them were (in) critical victories at a time when the offense was light for them and he really picked up his game, and it’s great to see.”

The Twins’ weakness

Minnesota features one of baseball’s most dangerous offenses. The Twins entered Thursday fourth in MLB with a .422 slugging percentage, sixth with 95 home runs and tied for seventh with a 111 wRC+. However, the starting rotation hasn’t been quite as good.

Twins starters rank 24th with a 4.61 ERA and 28th with 1.45 home runs allowed per nine innings.

“They definitely could use another starting pitcher to solidify the rotation,” Hayes said.

Haynes noted the regression of former Mariners farmhand Pablo Lopez, whose 5.11 ERA is well above the 3.66 he posted during an All-Star campaign in 2023. Minnesota also hasn’t received a single pitch this season from two MLB pitchers it acquired from Seattle in the Jorge Polanco trade. Starter Anthony DeSclafani is out for the season, and reliever Justin Topa hasn’t recovered from left patellar tendinitis that put him on the IL after spring training.

Flamethrowing closer Jhoan Durán has taken a step back after two stellar seasons, as well. The right-hander has a 3.80 ERA in 25 appearances after posting a 1.86 ERA in 2022 and 2.45 ERA last season.

“That’s been something new that they’re dealing with, but the rest of the group is sound there,” Hayes said. “They have a lot of power arms and they have a lot of potential.”

One thing to note about the Minnesota pitching staff, though, is they lead MLB with 9.09 strikeouts per nine innings.

Listen to the full conversation with Twins beat reporter Dan Hayes at this link or in the audio player near the top of this story. Tune in to Seattle Sports’ Extra Innings from 7-9 p.m. each weekday during the MLB season when the Mariners don’t have a game.

More on the M’s from Seattle Sports

3 Takes: Big questions about Seattle Mariners halfway through season
• Lefko: Julio’s struggles magnify Mariners’ need to add impact bat
• How much did bumpy road trip hurt first-place Seattle Mariners?
• ‘Mr. Mariner’ Alvin Davis shares his advice for struggling Julio Rodríguez
• A team that could help Seattle Mariners at trade deadline in multiple ways

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3 Things to Know: Mariners host Twins in potential playoff preview