Twins returned to winning ways in 2015

Twins returned to winning ways in 2015

MINNEAPOLIS -- After four straight seasons with at least 92 losses, the external expectations were low yet again for the Twins entering the 2015 season.

But with new manager Paul Molitor at the helm, the Twins were one of the biggest surprises in baseball, going 83-79 and not getting eliminated from postseason contention until the second-to-last day of the season. For his efforts, Molitor finished third in the balloting for the American League Manager of the Year Award.

It also saw the debut of rookies Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Tyler Duffey and Max Kepler, which gives the Twins promise for the future. Veteran outfielder Torii Hunter injected new life into the Twins with his clubhouse leadership and mentored several of the club's young players, but also retired after the season after a 19-year career, including 12 with Minnesota.

So the 2015 season was a solid building block for the Twins, who still possess a strong farm system and believe they can compete in the years to come.

"We raised our bar somewhat [in 2015]," Molitor said. "Granted, the format enabled us to be a part of the playoff picture until the last weekend. But there was a lot of things that were gained, a lot of things we found out about certain people and how they performed in September."

Here are five things to remember about the 2015 Twins:

1. Twins bounce back with historic May

The season started poorly for the Twins, as right-hander Ervin Santana was suspended 80 games for the use of performance-enhancing substances just three days before the start of the season and the team got out to a 1-6 record. But the Twins were able to overcome it, as they went 20-7 in May for their first month with at least 20 wins since 1991. It helped the Twins finish May in first place at 31-19 and kept them in contention the rest of the way.

2. Twins finish first half strong

After their impressive May, the Twins fell back to an 11-17 record in June and were scuffling heading into the last week before the All-Star Game. But Molitor held a team meeting to get his players to try to finish the first half strong, and it worked, as they won six of seven games against the Orioles and Tigers heading into the break.

Twins plate seven in 9th inning

It included their most memorable win of the season, on July 10, when they overcame a five-run deficit in the ninth inning, keyed by a walk-off homer from Brian Dozier, who also was named an All-Star for the first time in his career that same week. Dozier went on to homer in his first career at-bat in the Midsummer Classic in the AL's 6-3 win. Glen Perkins also finished the first half perfect in save opportunities and was an All-Star for a third straight year.

3. Youth movement at Target Field

Rosario was the first of several top Twins prospects to debut in 2015, and it was a memorable one, as he homered on the first pitch he saw in his career against A's lefty Scott Kazmir on May 6. He went on to be one of the club's best all-around players, as he reached double digits in homers, doubles, triples, stolen bases and outfield assists.

But it was Sano who had the bigger impact offensively, as he was called up on July 2 and immediately became their best hitter en route to finishing third in the balloting for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. The slugger clubbed 18 homers, 17 doubles and 52 RBIs in 80 games despite serving primarily as a designated hitter and dealing with a strained hamstring.

Sano third in AL ROY vote

Buxton didn't have as much success in the Majors, but is still regarded as the No. 1 overall prospect by MLBPipeline.com and as the club's center fielder of the future. And Duffey provided a major boost down the stretch, going 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 58 innings.

4. Rotation shows improvement

One of the main reasons why the Twins struggled so much over the previous four years was their ineffective starting pitching, as their starters had the second-worst ERA in the Majors over that span. But the Twins saw improvement in that area in 2015, as their starters had a 4.14 ERA that ranked 16th in the Majors.

Gibson's scoreless outing

Kyle Gibson took a step forward in his development, while Santana was solid upon his return from his suspension and Duffey was a sparkplug late in the year. Lefty Tommy Milone had a solid season, while Mike Pelfrey ate up innings. Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco both dealt with injuries, but for the first time in several years, the club had the depth to overcome them.

5. Twins fall just short

The Twins entered the last weekend of the season just one game out of the second AL Wild Card spot, but were ultimately swept by the Royals to miss out on the postseason by three games. Despite an impressive turnaround for the Twins, it was a bitter ending and one the Twins would like to avoid in 2016.

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.