Nine things to know about the Twins in the playoffs

The Twins return home Friday for what should be a festive final three games of the season at Target Field against the Tigers. Minnesota clinched a postseason spot during its 10-game road trip and is slated to be on the road Tuesday for the AL wild card game. The Twins are locked into their postseason spot, so expect this weekend to be a victory lap but also a tuneup as the Twins attempt to be at full force Tuesday.

With that in mind, here are nine things to know about the Twins in the playoffs:

1) They almost certainly will face the Yankees on Tuesday in the wild card game, but New York still has a slim shot to win the AL East. Boston leads the Yankees by three games with three to play. If the Yankees sweep the Blue Jays (who have nothing to play for) and the Red Sox are swept by the playoff-bound Astros (who still have something to play for), the teams will meet in a one-game playoff Monday at Yankee Stadium. If the Yankees come all the way back, the Twins would face Boston on Tuesday. Still, FanGraphs gives the Red Sox a 98.9 percent chance of winning the division, leaving the Yankees as the first wild card. If the Twins face the Yankees, they’ll have plenty of history — recent and distant — with which to contend. New York knocked the Twins out of the playoffs in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, going 12-2 in the process. And the Yankees just swept the Twins at Yankee Stadium last week.

2) If the Twins win on the road in the wild card game, they will face either Cleveland or Houston in the division series. Games 1 and 2 would be on the road next Thursday and Friday, Games 3 and 4 would be at Target Field on Sunday and Monday and Game 5 if necessary would be on the road Wednesday. Cleveland is ahead of Houston by one game and holds the tiebreaker. The Twins would face whichever of the teams finishes with the best record, with Cleveland most likely. Minnesota went 1-5 against Houston and 7-12 against Cleveland this season.

3) The Twins are still trying to determine what 25-man roster they will use for the wild card game Tuesday. Rosters need to be submitted by 9 a.m. the day of the game. They can change their roster between the wild card game and the ALDS, giving them some intriguing options.

 

4) The most intriguing question: Will Miguel Sano be available Tuesday? The Twins are at least considering adding their slugger, out since mid-August, if he remains encouraged by his recovery from a shin injury.

5) One thing not in question: Ervin Santana, the Twins’ most reliable pitcher for the duration of this season, is scheduled to start Tuesday’s one-game wild card playoff. Kyle Gibson or Jose Berrios could be used in relief in that game as well.

6) While the Twins have nothing to play for in terms of positioning this weekend, there is a bit of numerology at play. If they win two of three against Detroit, they will finish with an 85-77 record — the same mark they had in 1987 when they shocked baseball by winning their first World Series.

7) Regardless of what happens in the postseason, this year has already been an amazing turnaround from 59-103 last season. The Twins are the first team in MLB history to make the postseason after losing 100 games the previous season.

8) This is the Twins’ first postseason appearance since 2010, when they were swept by the Yankees. The only Twins player who appeared in that playoff series who is still on the roster is Joe Mauer.

9) A one-game playoff on the road is daunting, but FanGraphs gives the Twins a 41.1 percent chance of advancing to the ALDS, a 10.5 percent chance of getting to the ALCS, a 2.9 percent chance of reaching the World Series and a 1 percent chance to win it all. So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Brutal hit against Packers’ receiver underscores NFL’s problem

Whether you think the NFL has paid mostly lip service to the problems of concussions, head trauma and ultimately CTE in modern football or you think the league has made significant and meaningful strides in those directions, we can probably all agree that the NFL is at least doing more than it was 10, 5 or maybe even two years ago.

Rules penalizing hits on defenseless players and hits to the head — particularly helmet-to-helmet contact — can have a meaningful impact on a team’s momentum and a player’s wallet. Once those things happen enough times, it theoretically makes them less likely to happen as frequently.

But the NFL also is engaged in a delicate, near-impossible dance in this regard on two fronts.

For starters, football at the highest level is an incredibly fast-moving and violent game played by men coached to be physical right up to a specific point. A hit aimed at a shoulder can become a hit to the head if a defender moves at the last moment. Or a defensive player, caught in the heat of the moment of trying to make a play — or one trying to send a message of retaliation or intimidation — might cross that line on his own.

The second point is a little trickier, but it seems to me that the NFL’s move to penalize certain types of hits that used to be legal in the name of safety — a good thing in principle — has divided fans into two camps. And neither side is particularly happy.

The last week has provided fodder for an example of what I’m talking about.

Not to be lost in President Trump’s inflammatory comments last Friday about what to do with players who kneel during the national anthem was his rant about this very topic.

Today if you hit too hard –15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards!” Trump said during a speech in Alabama. “The referee gets on television — his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”

Fast-forward from that point to Thursday night, when the Bears’ Danny Trevathan — his team losing a chippy game to the rival Packers — lined up Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams, who who was being controlled by another tackler with his forward progress stopped, and delivered a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit that sent Adams off on a stretcher.

Most of the reactions I saw on Twitter were focused on outrage at the hit. Then again, a curated Twitter feed of like-minded people is hardly a good sample. It doesn’t take long to find examples of people who loved the hit.

There was a point in time when that kind of hit would have been celebrated by a plurality of fans watching. We can’t speak for Trump in this specific case, but the tone of his rhetoric last week gave voice to the type of fan that still wants to see violent hits and thinks rules protecting players have made the game soft in some way.

Trevathan was flagged 15 yards, the Packers’ drive was extended and after a delay they scored a quick touchdown. The intent of the rule to penalize a team for an illegal hit was validated, but it didn’t protect Adams. So even if you like NFL rules protecting players, you come to realize that the very nature of the game makes that impossible and that when players do cross the line and get flagged, the player on the other end of the target still suffers.

The NFL is at a seeming crossroads with fans on a lot of subjects, including national anthem protests. But if you want the most lasting reason the league’s popularity could see a meaningful decline, it’s this: Some fans think it’s too violent, and some think it’s too soft.

To sustain its massive popularity, the league needs both groups, but keeping both happy might be impossible.

A conversation with ESPN’s Doris Burke about the Wolves and Andrew Wiggins

Loitering outside Trader Joe’s in St. Paul last night while my wife finished grocery shopping with our kids, I had one of the more enjoyable interviews in recent memory.

ESPN’s Doris Burke called exactly when she was supposed to, but what I had promised would only take a few minutes went far longer as she gave thoughtful answer after thoughtful answer about her new role as a full-time ESPN NBA game analyst — making her the first female to hold that post on a national level in the NBA.

The majority of that part of our conversation will appear online and in print in Q&A form later this week. By the end, the conversation shifted to the Timberwolves. It started with a question from me, but Burke turned the tables at one point. After transcribing all of it, it seemed interesting enough to share as somewhat of a meditation on this upcoming Timberwolves season. Here we go:

Rand: The Timberwolves should be an interesting team this year for the first time in a long time. How do you see all the pieces fitting together, since it seems like there is an awful lot of optimism for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for 13 years and won just 31 games last season?

Burke: I’m anxious, always, when you add personnel to a group, what is the effect of that particular individual? And obviously the biggest addition is Jimmy Butler. This is a person who has proven himself to be an elite two-way player. One of the things I remember Jimmy saying about Tom Thibodeau that he so appreciated is that everything had to be earned with Tom. He wasn’t going to give you anything.

I remember the first game Tom went back to Chicago (last season) as a coach with the Timberwolves, Jimmy and Taj Gibson said essentially the same thing: They were so anxious to prove to Tom that they were making strides as players. They took such pride in their work habits that there were significant strides being made. That just spoke volumes to me about Tom, and I’m curious to see what impact Jimmy has.

One thing everyone knows about the NBA is that it’s very difficult for young players to win at a high level. We’ve seen this with the Timberwolves in the past — closing games, figuring out how to win. They could compete for maybe 36 or 42 minutes, but then it would be closing time and they might struggle. That’s a process that has to play out. I’m anxious to see what effect Jimmy’s presence has on that.

And then obviously, there are two incredibly talented young players in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s interesting, I remember sitting in a pregame meeting with (Thibodeau) last year. I don’t know Tom especially well, but things that strike me about him are 1) he doesn’t suffer fools lightly and 2) He would not hand out compliments indiscriminately. I remember thinking to myself, “gosh, he’s really impressed with their offensive ability and their talent level.” If the NBA teaches us anything, you have to have talent to win. And while there were lessons to be learned, Tom was excited about their talent level and potential there. The thing about it is they’re in the Western Conference, which is absolutely unforgiving.

(Pause for a couple seconds).

So let me ask you: What is the take on the team there, what is everyone talking about and what are you thinking about?

Rand: Well, it’s a very interesting team. I’ve been following this team since I was a fan in college, really, which is more than 20 years now — through the whole Kevin Garnett era — and plenty of bad as I’ve followed them professionally. There is a cautious optimism that comes from pretty much any fan base in Minnesota because with the exception of the Lynx who have been exceptional, things have not come easy for any of these pro teams here lately — particularly the Timberwolves. So I feel like there’s this mode here where people feel like this could be the start of something special, but they’re waiting.

And I feel like if there’s one huge story line aside from — or really connected to — the question of whether the Timberwolves are finally going to get it together, it’s the question of what exactly they have in Andrew Wiggins. I think we know more about Towns at this point than we do Wiggins, which is sort of strange since Towns has only been here two years and Andrew has been here for three. Certainly I’m interested in Jimmy Butler’s impact and what he brings to the team. But if you’re looking for the difference between a team that might win 40 or maybe 45 games and one that might be really on the way to something special it’s Wiggins. Is he just a scorer, or is he really going to be a star. I just get that feeling. I think Thibs likes him, and they’re going to give him the money, but I just don’t know yet.

Burke: Yeah, I know. There are moments where you can be seduced by Andrew Wiggins. … There was a moment, and for some reason Andrew Wiggins popped into my mind last year at this moment, with Jeff Van Gundy. We were covering a Utah Jazz game, and we hadn’t heard much from Gordon Hayward for maybe a 3-4 minute stretch, and I remember Jeff saying that Gordon has all the physical ability to be successful — the work habits, the frame, he’s developed his game — so every piece of stardom is there and looks like it’s ready to make the next step. But the reality is there’s a level of responsibility that comes with that kind of NBA star, where you have to deliver night after night after night whether you feel good, whether you don’t, whether you’re a little banged up. These sorts of questions for me have to unfold for the Minnesota Timberwolves. I know Jeff was referencing Gordon Hayward, but it’s funny how your mind flashes to other players in the league, and Andrew popped into my mind at that moment.

Me: Besides the scoring, he needs to bring more to the table. Some of his weaknesses might get hidden by Butler, and Towns is amazing, but if this Wolves team is going to be special they need Wiggins.

Doris: We can project and formulate, but we need to put eyeballs on these teams. I can’t wait.

What do the NFL rules say about national anthem conduct, and do they really matter?

The NFL buzzword last weekend, in the wake of President Trump’s comments regarding national anthem protests, was “unity.”

We heard that word time after time Sunday from teams and individuals associated with the league. The words were generally vague and hollow, if at least well-intentioned. I couldn’t get a handle on what exactly everyone was unified for (or against), but my best guess was that the unity was generally against Trump’s attacks on the NFL more than anything much deeper about racial injustice.

The discussion continues Thursday when the Packers host the Bears in a game during which fans are being asked to lock arms during the anthem at Lambeau Field in a display of — you guessed it — unity. Packers players locked arms last weekend before their game, and it received mixed reactions (as everything does these days).

At least quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to get a little more descriptive with what the gesture means to him and to what end he hopes it will lead.

This is about equality,” Rodgers said. “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people. But we’ve got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society, and we’re going to continue to show love and unity. And this week we’re going to ask the fans to join in as well and come together and show people that we can be connected and we can grow together.”

That’s good. Meaningful dialogue — a fear of which seems to be at the heart of much of this polarizing anthem business — is good. We had some of it on this week’s Access Vikings podcast, and it felt good.

What’s not so good are subjects that distract from that discussion. One such distraction that has cropped up in the last few days is a debate over whether NFL rules say players have to stand for the anthem. News outlets have attempted to debunk, clarify or explain what the league says about it.

To zero in on this issue, though, feels akin to going down a rabbit hole in search of a squirrel. You’ll get lost pretty quickly, and whatever you find isn’t the thing you should have been looking for in the first place.

Time Magazine was at least helpful in getting an NFL spokesman to provide a copy clarifying what the NFL’s gameday operations manual — not the rulebook, but a document covering logistics — says on the issue:

The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. … Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.

Some have taken this as evidence that the NFL prohibits players from kneeling. Others would point out that the couched language of “should” and “may” leaves plenty to interpretation. The NFL, by the way, is not considering any sort of punishment for players or teams who didn’t adhere to the manual.

The reality is this, though: this discussion is a distraction that does not matter.

Yes, of course there is a recommendation. That sort of behavior when the national anthem is played is the one that is generally expected. Colin Kaepernick and anyone else who has kneeled or gone against the grain in a different way at the start of an NFL game to protest racial injustice knows what the expected behavior is. If the Star Tribune played the national anthem every time I tried to go to work — which they don’t, as is the case with most jobs — that is how I would be expected to behave.

But this is how a protest works. You do the thing that is not expected of you to raise awareness and in the process you exercise your right to free speech.

A gameday manual can say what it wants. So can a president, for that matter. At the end of the day, we’re still back to the First Amendment — the trump card, so to speak — which carries just a little more sway than a logistical document or a tweet.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Free speech leads to uncomfortable conversations — ones that Rodgers, correctly, says we need to be having. Debating whether a league rule means players shouldn’t be able to start that conversation probably means you don’t want to have that conversation.

Enough false flags. The real one is too important.

Twins expecting sellouts for ALDS games that might not even happen

The last time the Twins made the postseason in 2010, they were in their first season at Target Field. Their home attendance for the season topped 3 million fans, helped in large part by a base of 25,000 season tickets.

The Twins won the AL Central that season — their sixth division title in nine years — and with the second-best record among division winners Minnesota had home field advantage against the wild card Yankees in the American League Division Series — guaranteeing the Twins and their fans at least two home games (which, it turned out, was all they got after being swept).

It was, to put it mildly, a much different postseason ticket selling climate. The Twins’ season ticket base has roughly been cut in half since Target Field opened, fueled by five 90-loss seasons between 2011 and 2016.

Their surprising turnaround from 103 losses last season to clinching the second wild card spot Thursday — something that didn’t exist last time they were in the playoffs — has “energized the Twins’ fan base,” team president Dave. St. Peter said Thursday morning.

He said he expects Target Field will be sold out for any American League Division Series games, should the Twins advance to that series.

But in this new postseason model where two wild card teams square off in a one-game format to advance to the division series, a team that makes the playoffs as the second wild card isn’t guaranteed a home game. That provides challenges — but also opportunities — for the Twins when it comes to selling playoff tickets.

“These are different circumstances than 2010, no doubt. We recognize that,” St. Peter said. “But I will say we’ve been encouraged by the engagement of our existing season ticket holders and group customers and other key stakeholders during presale. They’ve reacted in a very positive way in terms of postseason ticket opportunities.”

Still, more than 10,000 tickets to both potential American League Division Series games were available at 10 a.m. Thursday when tickets for that series went on sale to the general public. Season ticket holders can buy tickets already for the entire postseason, while the general public sale is — for now — just for the ALDS.

St. Peter texted me 45 minutes after tickets went on sale to say there has been “tremendous interest” and that more than 33,000 tickets to both games possible ALDS games have been sold.

But he also anticipates a lot of tickets will remain available into next week as fans stay in wait-and-see mode for that game in Yankee Stadium against a team that eliminated the Twins in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 and compiled a postseason record of 12-2 in the process.

If the wait-and-see folks hurt early presale a little, though, St. Peter expects the Twins to reap the rewards if they are able to beat the Yankees.

“I expect sellouts (for the ALDS). We’re not sold out, just to be clear. We have tickets to sell, and a lot of them. But I expect we will,” St. Peter said. “The way this club has played in the second half, I think a lot of casual fans are paying attention again for the first time in a long time. We need to win in Yankee Stadium to even play a home playoff game, but the backdrop of that victory would create incredible momentum next week.”

St. Peter pointed to 2009, when the Twins beat the Tigers in a one-game playoff for the division title, sparking a frenzy of ticket sales for the division series.

Bigger-picture, St. Peter said the Twins are off to a strong start with season ticket renewals and adding new customers for 2018 with the goal of inching toward 15,000 full season ticket equivalents next year. That goal underscores how much ground was lost as buzz around a new ballpark and the Twins’ losing seasons ate away at their crowds, but it would still be an improvement.

St. Peter acknowledged that a win over the Yankees would give the Twins another boost toward 2018 as well. And of course any tickets already sold for the ALDS are dependent on what happens Tuesday (the Twins will issue full refunds, with the exception of the $6 per order fee, on any tickets purchased for games that don’t end up happening).

“The postseason plays some role in season ticket sales, but I think the narrative around our club has already changed dramatically in the last 12 months,” St. Peter said. “The reality is the place you get a significant lift is if you can make a postseason run. Obviously Tuesday night’s game is really significant. Ultimately we need to make something happen in the postseason, and we’ll see Tuesday night.”

Here’s the pitching plan to get the Twins to the World Series

The Twins might not allow themselves to think about this 100 percent until a playoff berth is fully secured and the magic number is zero instead of one, but chances are they’ve already invested at least some thought into how they should line up their pitching for a one-game playoff in New York and potentially beyond.

If I had it my way — and unless someone has given me a promotion to the top of the Twins’ organizational chart that I don’t know about, I do not have things my way — this is how I would stack things up with the pitching:

*Ervin Santana starts against the Yankees. This is pretty much a no-brainer and it’s how the Twins have had their rotation set up for weeks. If he’s cruising and the Twins have a significant lead, he stays in. But the Yankees have a way of grinding teams down and getting pitch counts up. The Twins should plan for Santana to only pitch four or five innings, at which point they hand the ball to Jose Berrios.

Berrios hasn’t been pitching very deep into games lately as his innings have mounted, but he is the Twins’ best hope of navigating the middle-to-late innings. Unlike the Yankees, the Twins don’t have a bunch of 100 mph relievers to blaze through the final three innings. Berrios has fantastic stuff, and as a 2-3 inning guy for this game, he could be devastating. The Twins need to go all-in on this game, and that means they can’t pitch anyone they don’t trust. If that means burning through the guys who have been their top two starters most of the year, so be it.

If it works and the Twins manage to win in that Yankee Stadium house of horrors, using Santana and Berrios doesn’t leave the Twins in as bad of shape for the ALDS and beyond as you might think.

The Wild Card game is Tuesday. The ALDS starts Thursday on the road at either Cleveland or Houston, with Game 2 Friday. Game 3 is at Target Field on Sunday. That means Santana could pitch the Wild Card game and still be on regular rest for Game 3.

So then you go with this:

*Kyle Gibson in Game 1 of the ALDS. This would have been inconceivable at various points this season, but Gibson has been the Twins’ hottest pitcher over the last month, with a 7-0 record and 2.56 ERA in his last seven starts and at least six innings pitched in each of those games.

*Bartolo Colon in Game 2 of the ALDS, with Adalberto Mejia ready at the first sign of trouble – almost the same strategy as the Wild Card game, albeit with pitchers who have more question marks. Colon helped save the Twins’ season when they needed stability in the rotation, but he has a 13.50 ERA in his last four outings spanning a total of just 12 innings. Even when he’s been “on” this season, Colon has had a handful of games where he cruised through the early innings before running into trouble. Mejia, too, tends to be good for 4-5 innings. Between the two of them, the Twins have a chance.

Using this strategy, the Twins would be rolling the dice that they could split two games in Cleveland or Houston with what have been their No. 3, No. 4 and possibly No. 5 starters against Cleveland and Houston’s top two starters.

But: The Indians already have the edge against any Twins pitcher when Corey Kluber starts, and they probably have an edge when No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco (17-6, 3.43 ERA, 212 strikeouts) pitches. Houston would have the same with Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, assuming those are their first two pitchers. So why not hope you can pull off the unexpected — knock around one of those aces or get into a tight game that your bullpen wins or get a huge pitching performance from a lesser starter — and to back to Minnesota tied 1-1 with some real leverage?

*Regardless of where the series stood, the Twins would have Santana in Game 3 — either with a chance to take a commanding lead or at least cut the deficit to 2-1 with a more favorable pitching matchup.

*If you get to a Game 4, you have Berrios at Target Field as your starter. He has an 8-1 record and 2.45 ERA at home this season; on the road, his ERA is more than double that (5.17), which I’ll admit is a more helpful stat for the Twins in this game than it is when considering Berrios for relief at Yankee Stadium. Regardless, he’s been lights-out at home and has the stuff to shut down even great lineups. He could be in position to either close out a series or send it to a Game 5.

*In Game 5, the Twins would be back to Gibson against an opposing team’s ace. Again, that’s a lot to ask. But I think this pitching plan gives the Twins the best chance to win both a one-game playoff and a five-game series, while also setting up Santana and Berrios to potentially pitch Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS on full rest and skipping the Colon/Mejia spot (Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS are on Oct. 8 and 9, while Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS are Oct. 13 and 14, giving each pitcher four days off in between).

And then maybe the World Series isn’t that crazy?

But let’s not get that far ahead of ourselves.

Magic of 2017 was on full display Tuesday for Twins

The Twins might be the first American League wild card team in history to reach the postseason in a 162-game season with fewer than 86 victories. Given that simple fact about the 2017 Twins, who are currently 83-74, it’s not quite right to say yet that this is a great team.

But while these Twins may not be great yet, they sure have some magic in them.

Further evidence came Tuesday in an 8-6 victory over Cleveland that was dramatic, important and so very much a microcosm of everything good about the 2017 Twins.

Drama? Well, a team that had back-to-back walk-off wins earlier this month as it pushed toward a playoff spot might have outdone itself Tuesday. Brian Dozier’s two-out, three-run home run that made it 7-6 in the eighth inning wasn’t a walk-off but it felt every bit as thrilling as Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton’s game-ending home runs.

Important? Let’s start here: The victory reduced the Twins’ magic number to one with five games to play, clinching a tie for the second wild card spot. On a night when the Angels routed the White Sox, it kept Los Angeles from getting any ideas about or gaining any momentum toward a final week comeback. The Twins probably would have been fine even without that win in the big picture of the wild card race, but winning lets everyone breathe a little easier. Plus, the sooner they clinch outright, the sooner they can move on to fully preparing for the playoffs — resting players, definitively setting a pitching rotation, etc.

In addition, the Twins beat a very good Cleveland team that they could end up facing in the American League Division Series. After last week’s disappointment against the Yankees, getting a quality victory had some added weight.

A microcosm of 2017 as a whole? The two key themes to emerge from this Twins season are resilience and the dramatic evolution of several key players.

These Twins started the year with zero expectations after losing 103 games last season. They were written off countless times — most recently right at the nonwaiver trade deadline, when their playoff odds were around five percent and they traded away two veteran contributors. And yet here they are, on the cusp of becoming the first team in MLB history to make the playoffs a year after losing 100 games. That they clinched at least a tie in a game in which they had to use 10 pitchers because their 44-year-old starter got sick is pretty much perfect.

And that they got four hits from Eddie Rosario (perhaps the biggest breakout performer on a team full of them) … and that Dozier’s home run went to the opposite field, something he rarely did in the past … and that Dozier’s homer was followed by another amazing Byron Buxton catch, which was followed by a clutch Buxton single to add a massive insurance run … it speaks to what 2017 has been all about. The Twins haven’t fully arrived, but the arrival is very much in progress.

The magic of 2017 was in full display Tuesday. And now the magic number is one.

The 2017 Twins and five other pleasantly surprising Minnesota sports seasons

The currency of Minnesota sports fandom is the feeling of great optimism that fades — or more likely falls quickly and clumsily — into disappointment.

Cataloging Minnesota sports seasons that fit such a description would likely require the publication of a book.

The opposite type of Minnesota sports season, one that starts basically with no expectations and evolves into something pleasantly wonderful, can be confined to a smaller space.

I started thinking about that in the context of the 2017 Twins, who lost 103 games last season and were picked even by optimists to flirt with at least 90 losses again this year. Playoffs? Few would say that was on the radar, and yet here we are.

With that in mind, here are five other seasons in Minnesota sports history with a similar trajectory:

2012 Vikings: In the preceding season, the Vikings went 3-13 while shifting midseason to rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. Late in the 2011 season, star running back Adrian Peterson suffered a devastating knee injury that threatened his 2012 season.

What followed in 2012 was stunning, even if it proved to be an aberration. The Vikings went 10-6, Ponder started all 16 games, Peterson nearly broke the NFL rushing record and Minnesota reached the playoffs by beating the Packers in the regular-season finale.

2011 Lynx: The Lynx have been good enough for long enough now that it’s almost hard to remember when they were definitely not good. For the first 12 years of their existence, they made the playoffs twice, winning a total of one playoff game (and zero playoff series).

To go from that baseline to a 27-7 regular-season record and WNBA championship in 2011 was shocking, even if the addition of No. 1 overall pick Maya Moore that season foreshadowed improvement.

2004-05 Gophers men’s basketball: The 2003-04 Gophers went 3-13 in Big Ten play, and that was with conference freshman of the year Kris Humphries leading the Big Ten in both scoring in rebounding. He declared for the NBA Draft after one year and was a first-round pick.

Under those circumstances, few would have predicted Minnesota — led by the less-heralded Vincent Grier — would rebound to go 10-6 in conference play and make the NCAA tournament in 2004-05.

2002-03 Wild: Nothing about the Wild’s first two years of existence — 68 and 73 points, respectively — suggested Year 3 would be much different. The first surprise, then, was a jump to 95 points in 2002-03 and a franchise-first appearance in the playoffs.

The bigger surprise came once the Wild reached the postseason, knocking off first Colorado and then Vancouver after coming back from 3-1 series deficits in each case.

1987 Twins: The 1986 Twins went 71-91 and fired manager Ray Miller late in the season while turning the team over to a young Tom Kelly. Andy MacPhail, then 33, took over as general manager that offseason.

Even if the 1987 Twins had a promising core of young players led by Kirby Puckett, there were few expectations that season. “We were just trying to get organized and we won the World Series,” Bob Gebhard, MacPhail’s top personnel assistant, famously said after the Twins shocked the world.

Thirty years later, the Twins are in a similar spot.

Molitor’s 1982 Brewers provide cautionary tale for Molitor’s 2017 Twins

The Twins collectively woke up Tuesday morning with a five-game lead in the American League Wild Card race with six games to play.

Regardless of what source you choose, the Twins’ chances of reaching the playoffs are tantalizingly close to 100 percent. Baseball Prospectus has them at 99.6 percent. FanGraphs is a little more couched at 97.7 percent.

Either way, it’s an amazing climb from Aug. 1. On the day after the nonwaiver trade deadline, the Twins were given about a 5 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Now their magic number is two. They’re so close.

But as close as they are, they’re not in yet. And if anyone is going to remind the Twins of that, it’s manager Paul Molitor. Now, he’d probably be doing it regardless of his past experience because it’s a manager’s job to keep his team focused on the tasks at hand.

Molitor, though, can add a personal cautionary tale to his message to players.

Molitor was a standout on a loaded 1982 Brewers team that also featured AL MVP Robin Yount and several thumping power hitters. Starting on Aug. 1, Milwaukee was either tied for the AL East lead (back when the Brewers were in that division) or leading it outright. By the final week of the season, they had pulled ahead of Baltimore by four games — with five left to play.

I’m not sure they calculated playoff odds in 1982, but you would imagine the Brewers’ odds were pretty good — maybe not quite as good as the Twins’ odds because of circumstances I’ll get to in a moment, but certainly 90 percent or better. Remember, this was back when only the two division winners in each league made the playoffs.

And then things got dicey. The Brewers lost at Boston on a Thursday (attendance in that great baseball city for what was the Red Sox home finale at Fenway Park: 21,268). Baltimore won, cutting the lead to three games.

Milwaukee then had to go to Baltimore for a four-game season-closing series spanning three days. The Brewers were swept in a doubleheader Friday, cutting their lead to one game. They were blown out Saturday, putting the teams into a tie. That set up a one-game, winner-take-the-division finale Sunday in Baltimore. A seemingly safe lead had evaporated quickly.

The finale was a matchup of future Hall of Fame pitchers: Don Sutton for the Brewers vs. Jim Palmer of the Orioles. Finally, Milwaukee at that point had lost five consecutive games to Baltimore that season by a combine scored of 40-11.

But in that finale, Milwaukee’s bats finally woke from their slumber. Sutton pitched eight strong innings. The Brewers won 10-2, giving them a record of 97-65 and the AL East title. They ended up reaching the World Series, where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games. (The Orioles finished 96-66 and missed the playoffs, but they won the World Series the next year).

Now, Baltimore surely had a better chance of catching Milwaukee than the Angels have of catching the Twins since they had four head-to-head matchups with them.

But yeah, it’s never over until it’s over. Molitor will be sure to remind his team of that.

St. Thomas vs. St. John’s football at Target Field was a huge success. So when is the rematch?

An announced crowd of 37,355 watched St. Thomas defeat St. John’s 20-17 in a football game Saturday at Target Field that destroyed the previous Division III high-water attendance mark by almost 20,000 fans.

The game came together thanks to a perfect storm, so to speak, of circumstances. When the Twins’ 2017 schedule was being put together in the summer of 2016, MLB had them on a 10-game road trip at the end of September that freed up Target Field. That schedule gap aligned with the already-scheduled St. John’s vs. St. Thomas game and came on a weekend when the Gophers football team had a bye.

Given those parameters, the nature of the rivalry between the schools — ratcheted back up in recent years by the resurgence of St. Thomas — and the curiosity of the first-ever football game at Target Field, organizers were optimistic they could draw a big crowd. But 37,000-plus?

“When the game was conceptualized and talked about originally, we were pretty confident we could push toward 25,000,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter. “But I don’t think any of us believed we’d push beyond 35,000.”

Dan McKane, the MIAC’s executive director, was even more blunt when asked about the crowd that watched his conference’s most notable football rivalry. “I didn’t think we’d get anything close to (37,000) when it was first announced.”

But they did, and given the success of the day from the standpoint of logistics, finances and most importantly crowd enthusiasm — “I have not heard a single negative thing about the game yet,” McKane said Monday — the logical question becomes: When are they going to do this again?

In regards to football at Target Field, we already know the date of the next scheduled game: North Dakota State and its rabid fan base from Fargo will host Butler at Target Field in the Bison’s season opener in two years on Aug. 31, 2019.

St. Peter said Monday he has had conversations with several other regional schools about possibly playing football at Target Field.

“I think we’ve always felt like football could be part of our long-term future,” St. Peter said of Target Field. “I don’t know if it’s an every year type of proposition — maybe every other year or five years. It does require the right schools and right regional brands. NDSU is a natural.”

St. Thomas vs. St. John’s, though, is as close to ideal as you can get. Both schools have large Twin Cities-based followings, and plenty of long-distance alums traveled back to see Saturday’s game.

But if you do a game like this too often, the novelty wears off. Both schools also want to exploit their own home field advantages most years (Saturday’s game was technically a St. Thomas home game).

“We put so much money and time into our facilities that schools don’t want to lose a home game and home field advantage,” McKane said. “That’s something they want to take in account.”

St. Peter, meanwhile, said Target Field would never host a football game in October. That takes 2018 and 2019 out of the equation for Tommies/Johnnies at Target Field since the rivals are scheduled to meet in October both of those years.

September isn’t ideal, either, because it requires a long Twins road trip and repairing the field before the Twins return to play. The Twins, in fact, lobbied to have their 2017 schedule changed when they saw their marathon late-season road trip. When MLB couldn’t accommodate that request, they pivoted to football, St. Peter said.

“In some ways, our assessment won’t be complete until we play baseball Friday night,” St. Peter said. “Larry Divito (the Twins’ head groundskeeper) believes we came through it fairly well. … We’ll bring in a minimal amount of sod for replacement, but much less than what you would after a concert.”

Ideally, St. Peter said, a rematch between the teams would happen in November — after the end of MLB’s postseason when the field wouldn’t be used for anything else for months.

The MIAC football schedule is complete through 2027, and if we peek ahead we see St. Thomas and St. John’s face each other in November each season from 2020-2023. The 2021 and 2023 games are St. Thomas home games.

“There’s a chance it could work for us in 2021 or 2023 — a rematch, so to speak,” St. Peter said.

St. Peter and McKane were both at Saturday’s game. St. Peter called the atmosphere “awesome,” while McKane said the MIAC was “very pleased” with everything.

Given the overwhelming response combined with the way the schedule breaks in the future, it seems logical to at least pencil in a rematch sometime in the early 2020s — this time in November, when fans would probably need a gallon of hot chocolate instead of a gallon of water as they did during Saturday’s steamy game.

“I think certainly it’s something we’ll talk about down the road,” McKane said. “The novelty of this was so huge and that’s part of what made it a huge success. But I think there will be other opportunities.”