MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins made a 13-win improvement this year, the second-biggest rise in the American League, and remained in contention for a wild card spot until the final weekend of the regular season.
After four straight seasons averaging 96 losses, the Twins were relevant again. At times, they were tough to beat: throughout May, going into the All-Star break, and before and after Labor Day during a 16-7 run. Resilient was the best description of these Twins, with a 16-7 record over their last 23 road games one of many examples.
"That's a good trait to have in a team," third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. "We're not going to sneak up on anybody next year, but I think that come 2016 we'll be ready to compete again for the Central Division and make a playoff push."
Still, flaws were apparent.
The Twins had the AL's fourth-worst runs-per-game average in the second half. The bullpen was thin and blew some late leads in games down the stretch. For more than $40 million in combined salary this year, starting pitchers Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Mike Pelfrey and Ervin Santana accounted for 29 wins.
The wild card race was mostly made possible by league-wide mediocrity.
"You can never lose sight of the fact that we did fall short, and it's not like it's a successful season just because we made strides," second baseman Brian Dozier, acknowledging the "right direction" the Twins have themselves pointed in again.
No, manager Paul Molitor wasn't satisfied with his 83-79 rookie record.
"I try to be realistic. You see the upper-echelon clubs, the amount they're winning: We have a ways to go," Molitor said.
Here are some key angles to know about the 2015 season for the Twins:
The starting pitching, an albatross since 2011, was better. Kyle Gibson crept closer to the front of the rotation, Tyler Duffey bounced back from a brutal August debut by going 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA over his last nine start and Santana pitched like an ace in September. Rookie Eddie Rosario led the league with 15 triples and was second with 16 outfield assists. Dozier had 48 extra-base hits in 88 games before the break, making his first All-Star team.
The durable and slick-fielding Dozier had another sharp drop-off in the second half. The Twins had the fifth-most strikeouts in the AL, including a career-high 112 by Joe Mauer, despite finishing 10th in the league in home runs. Closer Glen Perkins had a 7.32 ERA after the break.
The Twins moved Trevor May out of the rotation for Santana when he returned from his suspension, and May became a valuable late-inning reliever until back and hip trouble limited him down the stretch. He'll be back in the mix as a starter next spring.
"I know that, given the chance, I can be not only one of the five but one of the go-to guys," May said. "Given 15 more starts, we would've seen some good things."
Plouffe led the Twins with 86 RBIs and has become a solid third baseman, but Molitor said he's "not overly comfortable" with Miguel Sano as a full-time designated hitter again. That means Plouffe could be a trade candidate this winter.
"I've said all along, 'We want that guy if he can help our team,' and clearly he came and just helped our team tremendously," Plouffe said.
HUNTER'S LAST HURRAH?
Right fielder Torii Hunter's return to the Twins brought 22 home runs, 81 RBIs, guidance for young players and age-defying energy exhibited in the laser lights, fog machines and pulsating beats of the post-victory dance parties he initiated. He'll be a free agent, though. With Rosario, Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks on the rise in the outfield, the 40-year-old Hunter might have to accept a reduced role if he's not ready to retire.