One week later: 15 things about eating 15 tacos

tacoOne week ago, I ate 15 tacos for lunch. Since then, I’ve had countless people ask me about the experience. Rather than hold a news conference, let me try to explain with a post on this here blog. This post will be a brilliant combination of “old” RandBall blogging style (writing about something ridiculous because why not) and newer style (lists! People love lists!). Here we go:

1) I couldn’t really remember how this even started, so I went back and checked Twitter. Basically, my good friend @JohnSharkman postponed our Taco Tuesday lunch at Taco John’s until Wednesday last week (negating the discounted price of $.89 per taco). Instead, he had a fancy lunch, and I was pretty steamed (OK, not really). So I asked him on Twitter if he thought I could eat $72 worth of tacos (the price of his Tuesday lunch). He said he’d buy lunch if I could do that. Stupidly, my counter was to say that I bet I could eat 15 tacos. He said I couldn’t. I reiterated that I could. Away we went, kind of.

2) I have no idea why I chose 15. My typical order at Taco John’s is five tacos — a number that’s still maybe a little high, but I try to hold myself accountable by running as many miles in a day as the number of tacos I eat. Jumping from five to 15 — triple the amount! How stupid! — is like going to an auction and jumping a bid from $100 to $300. Slow down! But it was too late. The number was out there.

3) Then again, I relish a challenge. Sometimes you just like to know you can do something. I don’t like being told I can’t do something. And strangely enough, the number 15 factors into a previous recent example. I’ve run five marathons in my life, with the most recent coming in 2015. Since then, I’ve continued to run as a way to stay in shape and relieve stress. My usual distance is four-to-five miles. I did the Twin Cities 10 Mile last October; from that point through mid-April, I hadn’t run more than five miles at any point. And then on one glorious spring day, I decided to do a long run. I kind of lost track of distance and time. More than two hours later, I arrived exhausted back at my house having run 15.02 miles (I even ran around the block at the end just to get to 15). What’s wrong with me?

4) Oh, right. I like a good challenge. And also, sometimes you just want to do something stupid and memorable. The life of a 40-year-old father of two is filled with a lot of routines and predictability. I’ve always liked getting out of my comfort zone. Eating 15 tacos was certainly out of my comfort zone.

5) So Wednesday arrived, and I skipped breakfast just in case I was really going to go through with it. I wasn’t even sure until I arrived at Taco John’s with Sharkman and Dana Wessel whether I was really going to try it. But then Sharkman was ordering and he looked at me and asked what I wanted. I just blurted out, “15 tacos.” This was the point of no return, really.

6) I wish I had planned some sort of greater good (hunger awareness? I don’t know) to go along with the challenge. When you think about it, eating 15 tacos is excessive and kind of gross. That’s not really how I try to live my life. But I allowed myself an exception to that rule.

tacos7) Have you ever seen 15 hard shell tacos on a tray? They pretty much fill up the whole thing. They looked fuller than the usual Taco Tuesday tacos, but that was probably just my mind playing tricks on me. I arranged them in two rows (one of seven, one of eight), got some hot sauce and water and then started eating. Quickly.

8) The first five were fine. All the way up to nine, in fact, felt pretty routine. Numbers 10, 11 and 12 weren’t ideal but they went down pretty easily. I was no longer hungry (no kidding), but the legend was building. Sharkman and Wessel were providing social media updates, and the response was overwhelming. Taco 13 went down slow, but OK. The 14th taco was when I started to experience some major regret. I was sweating and did not feel good. But I made it through. There was just one more staring at me. I spent a good five minutes staring at it before taking a bite. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. But you don’t get 14 tacos into a 15 taco challenge and say, “I’m good.” So I persevered. A bite here. A little bit of shell there. Slowly, but surely, it disappeared. “Can we call this one good,” I asked the table, with nothing but scraps in the wrapper. Sharkman said sure, as long as I took one more bite of lettuce. Can you even imagine? I would have punched him if I could have moved.

9) Eating 15 tacos is nothing and everything like running a marathon. It’s like a canceling out process when it comes to the health benefits (and no, I didn’t run 15 miles that day). But the mental hurdle is harder than the physical one.

10) When I was all done, and everyone at the table was sitting around in stunned silence, a Taco John’s employee came over to congratulate me. Wessel asked if I won anything. She said, “I don’t know. A taco?” Amazing. (Taco John’s subsequently tweeted at me because of all the social media traffic from Wessel and Sharkman. They said they’re sending me something “big.” I hope it’s not 15 tacos).

11) The walk back to my office through the skyway was not pleasant. I cannot stress this enough: I did not feel good. But it only took about 30 minutes to start feeling relatively normal again. Maybe I have a gift? Then again, it’s not like I ate 126 tacos in eight minutes like Joey Chestnut recently did at Mystic Lake to break the world record. I’m a recreational taco eater. I’ll leave the records to the professionals.

12) My favorite subsequent moments: 1) Someone I know who works in sports PR called a day later and said he had something he needed to ask me and he understood if I couldn’t talk about it. He and I have a pretty good relationship and I assumed it was something to do with something I had written that he didn’t like. Instead, he and a colleague (on speaker phone) started peppering me with questions about the tacos. 2) Another friend randomly sent me a T-shirt that says “Taco King.” 3) All of your tweets. No, really, they’ve been amazing. I had no idea people would be so into this dumb thing I did.

13 Yes, I’ve eaten tacos since then. I had three of them on Saturday at Maya. They were delicious. I’m hardly scarred for life. I still have love in my heart and stomach for tacos.

14 No, I have not had a Taco John’s taco since then. Yes, I will at some point.

15 No, I will never eat 15 tacos again in my life. But bacon …

Why has Ervin Santana been so dominant? Here are five explanations

santanaWhen the Twins signed Ervin Santana to a four-year, $54 million contract before the 2015 season, it was assumed they were getting a middle-of-the-rotation starter who would give them credible innings — and a lot of them. In the five years before signing with the Twins, Santana averaged 207 innings and a 3.88 ERA. Even though he was 32 when he made his Twins debut, it stood to reason he could at least come close to those numbers and help stabilize the rotation.

His tenure got off to a terrible start, of course, when Santana was suspended for the first half of the 2015 season for a failed drug test. He was decent after coming back that year (7-5, 4.00 ERA in 17 starts). He was much better than his record indicated last season (7-11 with a 3.38 ERA).

Few people, though, would have predicted that 10 starts into 2017, Santana would be pitching more like a Cy Young contending ace than a No. 3 starter. But that’s where we stand right now. Santana tossed his second complete game shutout of the season Tuesday against Baltimore, improving to 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA in the process.

How in the world is Santana doing it? Here are five possible explanations:

1) New baseball boss Derek Falvey is known for improving a team’s pitching while new catchers Jason Castro (who has caught Santana seven times) and Chris Gimenez (three times) have reputations as good receivers. It’s possible their influence has helped Santana.

The holes in that theory, though, are that the Twins’ team ERA this season minus Santana’s gaudy numbers is 4.72. And Santana was already on an upward trajectory last season before any of those guys showed up, having posted a 2.41 ERA in his final 18 starts of 2016. So maybe those guys have helped a little. But we need to keep looking for better answers.

2) Twins manager Paul Molitor had an interesting quote after Tuesday’s gem, complimenting Santana on his ability to vary speeds with his fastball. “He’ll paint at 90, 91 [mph], and then elevate at 93, 94. It might not seem that significant, but he knows when he needs to reach back and elevate. He doesn’t blow people away, but he gets strikeouts when he puts it in a good spot.”

The numbers bear that out, and those subtle dips keep hitters off-balance. According to Brooks Baseball, Santana’s average four-seam fastball velocity this season is 93.16 mph, which is right around his career average. But his fastest pitches each game top out around 96 mph.

Then again, he’s had that ability throughout much of his career — and even threw harder for his max pitches earlier in his career. So while varying speeds with his fastball is probably part of his effectiveness, it’s nothing new. Onward …

3) Santana is getting more movement on his pitches this season than in previous years. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

The vertical movement on all of Santana’s pitches — fastball, sinker, slider and changeup — is more pronounced this season than basically any other point in his career. The biggest differences are with his changeup and slider, which are moving an inch or two more on the vertical plane than they have during Santana’s career. That might not sound like much, but even subtle vertical movement makes it harder for hitters to make hard contact.

4) The Twins’ defense has been fantastic this season.

I think we have to acknowledge this as a strong factor as well. Santana is pitching great, but he’s allowed just 31 hits in 70 innings — which I’ve triple-checked because it sounds so absurd — without any change to his strikeout rate. Opponents are hitting fewer balls hard and fewer line drives off Santana than they did in past years, but not enough to fully account for the fact that he’s allowing just a .134 batting average this year.

The Twins are tied for fewest errors allowed this season in MLB (14) while leading the majors in defensive runs saved (32, almost twice as many as the next-closest team, per FanGraphs). Their defense has been excellent by any measure, and Santana has surely benefited.

5) We’re in the dreaded “small sample size” territory.

Yeah, it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from just 10 starts this season. Santana is bound to regress some.

Don’t forget, though: Santana’s stretch of excellence dates back to the middle of June last year, so we’re almost a combined full season of baseball into it.

It’s not typical for a 34-year-old pitcher with a track record for being slightly above average to suddenly become great. But maybe the combination of improved defense behind him, better movement on his pitches and veteran guile created the perfect storm for Santana?

Kirby Puckett, already in Cooperstown, makes another baseball hall of fame

puckettTwins legend Kirby Puckett was a first-ballot baseball Hall of Famer who was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2001.

Puckett can now add a smaller but not insignificant honor to his lifetime of achievements, albeit this one posthumous after his death in 2006.

The California League, a well-regarded Class A league, announced Tuesday that Puckett is part of the five-member class — just the second class honored by the league — to be inducted this year as members of the Cal League Hall of Fame.

The induction ceremony will be June 20 during the league All-Star game in Visalia — which, fittingly enough, is where Puckett starred in the league as he made his way on the fast track to the Twins.

Puckett hit .314 with 97 runs batted in for Visalia in 1983. A year later, he made his debut with the Twins and embarked on the career that would land him in Cooperstown.

(Thanks to reader Noel Thompson, who says he will be in attendance for the ceremony, for the heads up).

Wild is now one of four existing teams never to make a Stanley Cup final

nashvillewildNashville is going to the Stanley Cup Finals, having clinched the Western Conference title with a Game 6 home victory over Anaheim on Monday.

This is notable in Minnesota for a couple of reasons: it leaves the Wild on a shrinking list of franchises to never make a finals appearance … while simultaneously giving fans hope that the streak could be broken sometime soon.

First, the dark side of history. With Nashville’s berth, there are just four existing teams to never make it to the Stanley Cup Finals: the Wild, Columbus, Winnipeg and Arizona.

Now, to be completely fair the first three are pretty new franchises. The Wild and Columbus came into the league in 2000. Winnipeg came in a year earlier (the franchise was in Atlanta at the time). Only the Coyotes (formerly the Jets, who came in during the 1979-80 season) have been around long enough to consider it a real drought. Plenty of other franchises are in the midst of longer droughts — including Toronto, which hasn’t made it since 1966-67.

That said, that is not company the Wild wants to be keeping or a list it wants to be on.

So how does Minnesota get off that list and make a run to the finals? Earlier this week, I floated the idea of “bottoming out” and restocking with high draft picks as an option. While my conclusion was that it wasn’t the right immediate course given how good the Wild looked for much of this season, teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago have won five recent Stanley Cups after being dreadful, while Edmonton has a bright future thanks to a bevy of top picks.

It sparked a good discussion in the comments section (no, really!). Reader responses ranged from basically “this is ridiculous” (with a few people asking me that I never write about the Wild again) … to “this is a great idea” (with those people expressing frustration with the current regime) … to a more nuanced “yeah, but bottoming out doesn’t always work.” Here are five examples:

Billmem: “What a horrible thought process. You don’t bottom out to win a cup. You can’t bring in good free agent players when the team is horrible. Nobody wants to join the team. Build from the goalie forward.”

Cjvirnig: “The Wild is very arguably in the position of being ‘one player away’ from being perhaps the best team in the league. For that reason, bottoming out makes no sense. … The Wild is good enough to where it no longer has to worry about merely qualifying for the playoffs. The goal now is winning IN the playoffs. The team’s moves should reflect that.”

Govies77: “Well sure you bottom out. There’s no question. The Mild have been chasing The Hawks the last 6 years. Now it’s the Hawks and for the next 8 years the Oilers. Good luck with that if you DON’T tank for a few seasons. This team won’t even have to try hard though. It’s just going to happen. (They’re) going to be awful by 2020.”

ericgus55: “Caught in the middle can be the worst place to be, and hard to get out of — not quite good enough to win it all, but not quite bad enough to get top picks.”

jeff4649: “Tanking rarely works because you are assuming there will be a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews available which doesn’t very often which is why they call them generational talents. … Sorry, you can get dominant players without tanking. Look at Detroit.”

Fair points, all of them.

In some ways, Nashville provides the perfect example of why the Wild wouldn’t be tempted to “bottom out.”

The Predators have a similar history to the Wild, having entered the league in 1998 — two seasons before Minnesota. They had made the playoffs nine times before this season but never advanced even as far as the conference finals.

Nashville might have felt coming into this season that another so-so finish was likely given the rest of the talent in the conference. And indeed, the Predators were nothing special during the regular season, making the playoffs as a wild card after finishing fourth in the Central Division. The Wild finished well ahead of the Predators and defeated them in three of five meetings this season.

Then Nashville shocked Chicago with a sweep. The Predators followed with series wins over St. Louis and Anaheim. Suddenly they’re in the Stanley Cup Finals.

That sort of surprise run, which is uncommon in the NBA, happens frequently enough in the NHL to give hope to any team with a playoff berth. For example, nobody expected the Wild to reach the conference finals in 2002-03, when Minnesota played its way into a legitimate chance to reach the cup finals in just its third year of existence.

The Wild has made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons. Maybe next year will be Minnesota’s year? Then again, maybe that type of thinking will keep the Wild in a perpetual cycle of good-but-not-great seasons with no finals berths?

And maybe if everyone is OK with that, there’s nothing more to discuss.

Golden State is beautiful to watch (unless you love the Wolves)

goldenstateAfter his team was thoroughly defeated again Monday, capping Golden State’s Western Conference Finals sweep and keeping the Warriors undefeated in the postseason, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went out of his way to compliment his team’s opponent not only for its talent but the way they play beautiful, unselfish basketball.

Pop was right (as he almost always is). The Warriors are a team with a comically unfair amount of talent after adding Kevin Durant to a team that last season won an NBA-record 73 games. But they are also a group of players likely to make the extra pass and execute to perfection. They play with such ease that their head coach, Steve Kerr, has missed the last 10 playoff games because of complications from a back surgery and they haven’t missed a beat.

It’s gorgeous to watch, but it will all be coming to an end soon. Because the Warriors, in this era of sports, can’t possibly hope to keep all these players paid and happy.

Wait. They can.

There’s a good chance there will be several more years of this beautiful, championship-caliber basketball coming out of the Bay Area.

That’s great news if you love great basketball. It’s terrible news if you’re a Timberwolves fan.

This conclusion was reached after taking an admiring/depressing look at Golden State’s salary cap situation.

First off, there is basically no meaningful dead weight to be found anywhere on their cap — no expensive buyouts, no long-term contracts they regret. All of their highest-paid players are key contributors.

Ah, but Stephen Curry will cash in this offseason when he’s a free agent. He’s “only” making $12 million this year — a sum that still probably lets him afford a one-bedroom condo in San Francisco but just the 73rd-highest total of any NBA player this season.

Yes, Curry is set to make a huge jump in salary — in line for an obscene five-year, $205 million deal. Durant, too, can opt-out of his deal and sign a massive four-year deal. So the Warriors are in trouble, right?

Nope. Assuming both players re-sign with Golden State — and who wouldn’t want to have fun and win rings in one of the greatest cities in the world? — the Warriors will still be in decent cap shape because Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are under contract for two more and three more years, respectively, on deals that will pay them barely more per season than Gorgui Dieng makes with the Wolves.

There might come a time in a few years where the Warriors have to make a hard roster decision, but as long as they have three of the four above-mentioned players, they will be title contenders. And the NBA salary cap will also continue to rise, helping them get creative.

So that’s what the Wolves (and the rest of the West) are up against. Minnesota, in theory, has the young talent to form a contender someday. But Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have already played three seasons of their rookie deals and Karl-Anthony Towns has played two. Around the time the Warriors might face any hard salary decisions, a bunch of these young Wolves will be looking to cash in with big contracts of their own.

That doesn’t mean Minnesota can’t become a playoff team. It does mean it will take a healthy mix of good fortune, timing and the unexpected demise of the Warriors to become anything more than that anytime soon.

Might as well get used to this beautiful [redacted] basketball.

After dismal April, it’s been (good) vintage Joe Mauer in May

sanomauerThree weeks ago, I wrote about Joe Mauer’s awful April, offering the caveat that while his performance had dipped dramatically even from his disappointing 2014-16 seasons, he was also hitting into some bad luck when considering his hard-hit rate was actually higher than his career average while his batting average on balls in play was just .243.

I was curious to see if Mauer’s numbers would trend upward in May as long as he kept hitting the ball hard while getting some better luck.

Three weeks into the month, the answer is yes.

Mauer has at least one hit in every game he’s started in May (13 games total). He entered the month with a .225 batting average and a .546 OPS. This month, though, his batting average (.320), on-base percentage (.424), slugging percentage (.500) and OPS (.924) are all vintage Mauer — the good kind, not the recent kind.

His batting average on balls in play this month is .368, which is a little bit on the overachieving side but much closer to his .339 career mark than the .243 mark from April.

The month has featured two home runs, including his first career walk-off homer May 5 against Boston.

While his season numbers still don’t look great — .262 average, .695 OPS — his batting average has climbed 37 points already in May while his OPS has jumped 149 points.

This all reinforces that 1) Drawing conclusions after a month of a season can be dangerous. The same can be said, of course, about drawing too many conclusions from the past three weeks. Both stretches count, after all. 2) Mauer will probably wind up the season with similar numbers to what he had from 2014-16 — not great, but far more useful than what he was producing during a brutal, unlucky April.

Gophers softball loss makes NCAA look worse, not better

gopherssoftballThis weekend’s softball action in Alabama provided a convenient narrative for those who doubted the Gophers softball team and/or thought the NCAA was justified in not giving Minnesota one of 16 seeds and the right to host a regional despite the Gophers’ Division-I best 54 victories coming into the tournament.

Minnesota, of course, lost in the regional final to host Alabama — falling twice to the Crimson Tide by 1-0 scores in the tournament.

But even brushing aside the controversial ball four call that ended that first 1-0 loss, this remains the bigger truth: the NCAA was hardly vindicated in its slight of the Gophers heading into the tournament. In fact, the governing body and its SEC-loving softball committee looked even worse Sunday when the Gophers were eliminated than it did a week ago when making the still-inexplicable decision to send the Gophers on the road.

If your natural reaction is to look at the losses to Alabama and yell “See! See! The Gophers really were overrated!” … well, let’s just agree to disagree (that’s the polite way to put it). That has been the message on plenty of tweets, online comments and even e-mails to me from readers.

The Gophers went 2-2 in the tournament, finishing 18-5 on the season against teams that made the NCAA field of 64 and 56-5 overall. If you don’t think home field advantage or having to play one of the top 16 teams in the regional — something Minnesota should not have had to do — played a role in the Gophers’ ouster, I don’t know what to tell you.

Sure, the Gophers would have had to beat good teams no matter what. And yes, if they would have made it past a regional or even to the College World Series, they would have faced tougher teams than Alabama. But the NCAA made that path much harder than was deserved.

You could have made a more compelling “overrated” case had the NCAA properly given the Gophers one of the 16 seeds and they still lost at home. But even then, reducing a 60-plus game season to one weekend isn’t really fair. The 2001 Seattle Mariners went 116-46 before getting bounced in a short series. Golden State went 73-9 in the NBA regular season last year but didn’t win a championship. Those were remarkable teams who misfired at the wrong time.

The Gophers’ performance was below their standards, and Alabama is a worthy regional champion. Both teams probably deserve to still be playing in the tournament. The NCAA committee made that impossible, and they look worse for it.

Herschel Walker has nothing but fond memories of The Trade

walker2On Oct. 12, 1989, the Vikings did something that they thought would push them over the edge and finally help the franchise win a Super Bowl.

Instead … well, let’s just say their trade with Dallas for running back Herschel Walker did not do that. The Vikings were 3-2 at the time of the trade. Walker dominated his debut, rushing for 148 yards in a victory over Green Bay.

But he cooled off. The Vikings finished the season 10-6 and were demolished in the opening round of the playoffs by San Francisco. They didn’t win another playoff game until 1997 and still haven’t won a Super Bowl. Dallas used the draft picks from the deal to help build a dynasty.

The deal became the subject of countless “worst trades in sports history” lists and of an ESPN 30 for 30 film “The Great Trade Robbery.” Vikings fans still lament it nearly three decades later as part of their lore of heartbreak. They might know in their hearts it wasn’t Walker’s fault — he could have been more productive in Minnesota, sure, but Mike Lynn was the one who made the deal — but his name is inevitably attached to that failure.

There are probably very few people who view the Herschel Walker trade in a benign or even positive light. But one of those people rolled into the Twin Cities on Thursday evening on a motorcycle, wearing fluorescent colored protective clothing to ward off the elements of a crisp early evening in May and looking very much like he could still play even at age 55.

The man was Herschel Walker himself.

“What’s so funny is that I don’t think too much about the trade,” Walker said. “I think what I remember about Minneapolis is how nice people treated me. I tell everyone about Byerlys. I used to go Byerlys a lot and get that wild rice soup. I think I mentioned that in an article once and they sent me a recipe book that had the wild rice soup in it.”

Soup? This trade was so lopsided it has its own Wikipedia page and he remembers soup?

“I’d say the Herschel Walker trade was an experience for me,” he added. “It gave me an opportunity to do a lot of different things. I think it made me a better player and a better person.”

If his comments revealed a disconnect between how he thinks of the trade and how others do, they also revealed a disconnect between how some Minnesotans think of Walker and how they perhaps should think of him.

Sometimes we get so bogged down by history and preconceived notions. What’s true about Walker is that he was a very good NFL running back put into a very tough spot in Minnesota. He rushed for more than 8,000 yards in his NFL career (and nearly 14,000 combined in the NFL and USFL). In parts of three seasons with the Vikings he rushed for 2,264 yards and 4.1 yards per carry.

And so many years later, he remains upbeat and could not possibly be nicer when asked about his time here.

He was in the area as part of NASCAR legend Kyle Petty’s Charity Ride Across America, a motorcycle ride now in its 23rd year that has raised millions of dollars for Victory Junction and its mission to help children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Walker is on the ride for the 12th time, he said — hooked on a ride that he initially thought was “crazy.”

“I met him at a race one time and we were talking about different things. We talked about motorcycles and he said he had three or four motorcycles. I told him to come on out and ride,” Petty said. “So he and his brother-in-law, Bill Richard, who was an all-American track star at the University of Georgia, they came out and rode with us. The next year he brought his cousin and this year I think he has five or six people on the ride. He brought George Rogers. One Heisman Trophy winner brings another Heisman Trophy winner on the ride. You can’t beat that.”

The ride, which started Saturday in Portland, Ore., and is slated to end Friday in Milwaukee, follows a different route every year. Riders were welcomed Thursday by hundreds of supporters — many waving miniature checkered flags or American flags — at Manheim Minneapolis, located in Maple Grove. Walker said it was the first time since he’s been riding that the Twin Cities were one of their stops.

“I know because I was excited that it was coming to Minnesota,” said Walker, who signed several autographs Thursday. “If you read anything I’ve ever said, I think Minnesota is one of the greatest places I’ve ever lived in my life.”

Our conversation drifted to politics, in part because that seems to happen naturally these days and also because Walker has a long connection to President Trump: back in the mid-1980s, Trump owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals when Walker played there.

Resisting the urge to make a “tough on trade” joke, instead let’s hear from Walker on Trump.

“Donald and I still get along well. We still talk. We’ve been longtime friends since 1983,” Walker said. “Our families get together and we still do business a lot in the food business with him and the kids. Ivanka and little Don and I work together a great deal.”

Walker, 55, has dabbled in politics and supported Trump’s campaign. But we weren’t even talking about any of his own political aspirations until he said this:

“One thing I always say is that if I ever run for president, I hope I can carry the state of Minnesota because the people here were absolutely incredible.”

A lot of facets of that seem unlikely, but I wouldn’t trade the reaction of Minnesota voters for the world.

Stretch of 53 games in 53 days will test Twins’ pitching

kintzlerIf you felt like the Twins didn’t play very much during the first month-and-a-half of this season, you are correct. If you’re worried about the future consequences of that … well, we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s a valid concern after a quirky start to the year.

Because of four weather postponements and six scheduled off days between the start of the Twins’ season (April 3) and Wednesday, the Twins played just 35 games in that 45-day stretch.

By contrast, the average MLB team had played 39.8 games entering Thursday. No other team had played fewer than 37 and two of them — the Rays and Angels — had played 43 games, eight more than the Twins already.

But with three of those postponements rescheduled as doubleheaders in the next month-and-a-half — with the first one being played Thursday against Colorado — and just three scheduled off days in the same span, the Twins embarked Thursday on a stretch in which they will have 53 scheduled games in a 53-day span leading into the All-Star Break.

Playing that many times as the weather (allegedly) begins to heat up can cause wear-and-tear on players. But the Twins’ pitching staff figures to be tested the most.

The Twins entered Thursday with 4.09 ERA from starters, 10th-best in the majors. But owing to some short starts and the nature of baseball these days, their starters were only averaging 5 1/3 innings pitched per game.

They’ve been able to get away with routinely asking for a lot of outs from relievers because of all the off days (and secondarily because entering Thursday the Twins had only played one extra-inning game all year, and that one ended in the 10th).

Their bullpen, while not great with a collective 4.72 ERA entering Thursday (22nd in the majors), at least hasn’t been overworked. In situations where they’ve needed outs in close games, the Twins have been able to use fresh pitchers they wanted to use. And in a lot of cases, in spite of that inflated bullpen ERA, those pitchers have delivered. Improved pitching numbers have keyed the Twins’ rise to first in the AL Central.

But playing 53 games in 53 days presents challenges for both starters and relievers.

For the starters, it puts pressure on them to work deeper into games. And while rainouts and off days so far allowed the Twins to sometimes avoid using underachieving or untested pitchers, now they will have situations where they need fill-in starters because doubleheaders throw off the normal schedule for days of rest. The first of those situations will come Monday thanks to Thursday’s doubleheader.

And if starters falter — or merely can’t work deep into games — relievers will wear down and/or less-than-optimal options will be called upon in key situations. It was important in the big picture, for instance, that Ervin Santana was able to pitch seven innings in Game 1 of Thursday’s doubleheader despite giving up early runs against Colorado.

We will see if the Twins have the pitching depth to withstand this stretch. After it’s over, they’ll get four days off from July 10-13 for the break. Then their post-break schedule includes 74 games in 80 days — a test, but not the kind of grind they’re facing now.

Then again, with more rain in the forecast for this weekend’s series with Kansas City, who knows what other scheduling surprises and challenges await.

Three Twins castoffs hit huge home runs Wednesday night

herrmannIt’s hard to quibble with the moves the Twins have made recently since they are in first place (19-16) in the AL Central. (Interesting side note heading into today’s doubleheader: Minnesota has played just 35 games this year because of off days and rainouts, easily the fewest in the majors. The Angels and Diamondbacks have already played 43 apiece).

So treat this as more of a coincidental moment in time than a wholesale critique of some of the Twins’ roster moves over the past couple seasons.

But: three former Twins players hit huge home runs for their new teams on Wednesday — and all of them relate to the catching position.

*Kurt Suzuki, the catcher the Twins let go in favor of signing Jason Castro, hit a three-run bomb for the Braves in an 8-4 victory over Toronto. Still, Suzuki is hitting just .230 and the Twins have upgraded notably on defense at the catcher position in 2017.

*Aaron Hicks, the outfielder the Twins traded before the 2016 season for catcher John Ryan Murphy, blasted a three-run homer for the Yankees in a win over the Royals. Hicks, if you haven’t been paying attention, is having a fantastic year for New York. That was his seventh home run already and he has an eye-popping 1.080 OPS. Murphy is languishing in Class AAA (still), hitting .232 for Rochester and not apparently fitting into the Twins’ plans any more. So that trade doesn’t look so good right now.

*Chris Herrmann, a former Twins catcher/utility player, hit a walk-off home run for the Diamondbacks against the Mets. Herrmann, whom the Twins traded for power hitting prospect Daniel Palka, has become a solid reserve for Arizona.

I look forward to huge contributions Thursday from Juan Centeno, Brian Harper and Dave Engle.