The circumstances and details have differed, but so far the course of this Twins season has very closely mirrored the last one. In both instances, the club looked strong coming out of spring training before being derailed by injuries and poor performance over the first two months, digging a deep early hole.
When June came around last year, the Twins suddenly turned things around, taking advantage of weaker competition and rattling off victories (17 out of 19 at one point) to make a run at the .500 mark, which seemed like an unthinkable feat when they finished May at 19 games under. They kept playing well into July, creating some ambiguity as to their status as buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, but then the wheels came off completely in August and September.
Staying consistent with last year's storyline, the 2012 Twins have turned things around here as weather has heated up and the schedule has softened. They've won four straight series and six of their last eight; prior to this stretch they had won only two of their last 24 series dating back to last year.
It's been a stark turnaround, much like the one we saw around this time last summer when the Twins posted a .654 June winning percentage compared to .338 over the rest of the campaign. That sudden spell of success created a lot of hope, which came crashing down in a nightmarish final third of the season.
In light of these parallels, fans are now wondering whether the team's current improvement is legitimate or another painful mirage. Fortunately, there are plenty of indications that a similarly dramatic drop-off is not on the horizon.
It starts at the core. Whereas last year Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were never quite right, both are healthy and playing at an extremely high level right now. Since May 16th (when Morneau returned from the disabled list) Mauer is hitting .356 with six doubles and two of his three home runs; Morneau has 11 extra-base hits – including six homers – and is averaging an RBI per game.
The rest of the lineup has contributed around those two. Josh Willingham has of course been fantastic. Denard Span and Ben Revere have formed a dynamic and effective table-setting force at the top of the lineup. Trevor Plouffe has eight homers in his last 18 games and is starting to look like an actual major-league third baseman.
There are tons of positives on offense, and as long as most people stay healthy that unit should remain in good shape. Pitching is another story. There have certainly been some positives there as well, but even those carry major caveats. (When will the bad Frankie return? When will Scott Diamond's bubble burst?)
Absolutely we should expect better from the rotation over the rest of the campaign – a 6-plus ERA was probably never sustainable – but it seems highly unlikely that this flawed group of starters can do enough to turn this three-week run of success into a three-month run, which is what the Twins would need to crawl back into contention after an abysmal start. The offense is good, but not good enough to overcome a below-average pitching staff and win at a .600-plus clip the rest of the way? Hard to see.
Of course, most realists aren't expecting that. Most are just hoping for solid, watchable baseball as opposed to the ugly mess that we were exposed to in April and the first half of May.
And if the Twins really do want to surpass expectations and make a statement, there's no time like the present. Their next six games are at home, their next 12 are against the National League (which they have historically dominated) and they'll follow that up with 11 straight against teams ahead of them in the AL Central.