Twins home opener: It has to get better, right?
The most pressing question surrounding your 2014 Minnesota Twins, after three consecutive seasons with more than 95 losses, is: Things can't get worse, can they?
The general feeling in the off-season among most die-hard supporters and close observers was, "Of course not." Certainly not all the pieces will fail as they have for the last three years.
Still, it seems like so long since those heady days of 2010 when the team was playing in a brand new ballpark and made the playoffs, capturing the AL Central title. Since then, the team has seemed like the Walking Dead.
While some wondered whether Manager Ron Gardenhire would be around to get his 1,000th victory with the club, a late-season two-year contract extension made Gardy seem noble even to those who wanted him gone - his reason for staying was that he wanted to stick around to clean up the mess and right the ship.
But the club's main off-season move was shifting catcher Joe Mauer to first base. That's it? That's the big off-season move? (The move, it should be noted, was Mauer's decision, after a foul ball behind the plate led to a concussion.)
Two off-season signings raised hopes as the club secured two decent, if not marquee pitchers - longtime Marlin Ricky Nolasco from the Dodgers and Phil Hughes from the Yankees. Not a bad start, but not near enough.
And that was about the best the Twins did fishing in the free-agent market. By spring training, too many of the same old names - of players who would not make a major league roster elsewhere - were still in the line-up.
By then the question became: My God, are they going to be worse? Sports Illustrated projected that the team would lose 100 games this year.
Since then, the Twins have managed to hit .500 coming into today's home opener, going 3-3 in a tough road week in Chicago and Cleveland. They even managed to get Gardenhire his 1,000th win - finally - on Saturday in Cleveland.
So there's reason to be, as the phrase goes, "cautiously optimistic." One of the biggest problems last year was leaving runners stranded in scoring position - a team average of .225 in those situations was second-worst in all of the majors last year. So far, the team has scored early and often - notching 38 runs in just six games this season is nothing to sniff at.
Another issue was the starting pitchers, who were often lucky to get through four innings before getting yanked. The best news in that department is that last year's opening-day pitcher, Vance Worley, didn't even make the ballclub this time around. Despite middling performances by Nolasco and Hughes, the starting rotation has been doing something not seen by Twins staffers in what seems like 10 years: Pitching inside.
This seems like a conscious top-down order from Gardenhire to pitching coach Rick Anderson, who in recent years has encouraged his hurlers to pitch low and away. But Mike Pelfrey pitched five perfect innings by going high-and-tight against Cleveland on Friday before imploding in all-too-typical fashion. On Saturday, one-time phenom and Tommy John casualty Kyle Gibson picked up an impressive win by repeatedly pitching on the inner half of the plate.
That has to carry over into the first homestand of the season - nine straight home games against the A's, Royals and Blue Jays - otherwise the team's attendance will plummet. The novelty of the new ballpark has worn off, and if the Twins don't win at home, Target Field could become a ghost town.
But the starting pitching looks better just by facing up to batters and throwing tough, with minimal down and away pitching. In every game so far in this young year, the team has shown true grit. In a game laden with intangibles, that might be the biggest change.