MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Twins restoring hope to proud franchise

Twins restoring hope to proud franchise

Worst to first? There is precedent on the side of the 2015 Minnesota Twins.

The Twins are currently baseball's most pleasant surprise. Two months into the season, they lead the American League Central, which can logically be seen as baseball's best division.

In the preseason, many prognosticators said that the division was so well balanced that any one of four clubs could win it -- the Tigers, Royals, Indians or White Sox. The Twins, on the other hand, were a popular fifth-place choice.

Earlier this century, the Twins were the model small-market franchise, winning six division titles over nine seasons. But from 2011-14, they averaged more than 95 losses per year. Their best record in that stretch came in 2014, when they went 70-92, but all that got them was last place in the division.

You could see how that record, along with the prowess of the rest of the division, might engender some skepticism regarding the Twins' chances. But Minnesota has risen far above the low expectations, putting up a 30-19 record, including the AL's best home record, going 19-7 at Target Field.

This has been fairly termed as surprising, but it doesn't stand up to what happened in 1990-91 for this franchise. The 1990 Twins were 74-88, last in the AL West, at a time when the leagues had two divisions.

But in 1991, Minnesota was 95-67 -- not only the best record in the AL West but in the entire league. The Twins advanced to the World Series after defeating the Blue Jays in five games in the AL Championship Series.

In the World Series, the Twins faced the Braves, who had undergone a worst-to-first transformation of their own. The 1990 Braves were 65-97, finishing last in the National League West. In 1991 they were 94-68 and won the division.

What followed was one of the most compelling Fall Classics of all time. The Twins' victory in seven games featured five one-run contests, including Game 7, a 1-0, 10-inning thriller for the ages in which Jack Morris went all the way for Minnesota. Morris, also the Game 1 winner, was named the Series MVP. The Braves won all three games in Atlanta, but the Twins won all four games at home, in the Metrodome.

No matter where those Twins were in 1990, they had some imposing talent in their championship season. The top three in the rotation -- Morris, Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani -- won a combined 54 games in the regular season, Erickson leading the way with 20 victories. Rick Aguilera was a first-class closer, saving 42 games, finishing with a 2.35 ERA.

The multitalented Kirby Puckett was in center for the 1991 Twins, and his game-winning home run in Game 6 turned around that World Series. Kent Hrbek was a power-hitting first baseman. Designated hitter Chili Davis had 29 homers. The offense was deep. Catcher Brian Harper hit .311. The defense was solid. This team completely merited a championship.

The current Twins don't seem as impressive as all that, but then, not many teams would. But the sort of turnaround Minnesota is attempting is not only not unknown, it is extremely well known in the history of its very own franchise, just 24 years ago.

Yes, the Tigers have won the AL Central four years in a row. Yes, the Royals were in the World Series last October. Yes, the White Sox and Indians should be better than their early performances have indicated.

But the Twins lead the division with their record, and they lead the entire league in defeating negative expectations.

Minnesota's performance has not been completely implausible. Through the Twins' first 49 games, they were tied for fourth in the league in runs scored. They were ninth in the league in team ERA, which doesn't shout "pennant!" at you, but there are valid reasons to expect that they can improve on that status.

If the season ended today -- and it never does when someone says that -- Paul Molitor would win the AL Manager of the Year Award. He's a Hall of Famer, he's a winner, and his rookie status as a manager doesn't seem to be working against him, does it?

Whether or not the 2015 Twins can follow in the gigantic footsteps of the 1991 club, the current group has restored hope to a franchise that has had a proud heritage. Minnesota once again looks to be headed in a winning direction.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.