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Get to know your opponent: Minnesota Twins

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Two teams fighting to get in to the playoff picture meet this weekend in Minneapolis, and the Rays could be the ones to close the door on the Twins

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Following the 2017 trade deadline, the Twins went 35-24, the third-best record in the AL, and they scored the most runs in baseball. It was a good enough run to catapult them into the playoffs — albeit a short run, losing the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning.

This season was their chance to build on that impressive second half, building around an exciting young core, and emerging fully into a contender. To put it kindly, it has not worked out as they had hoped.

So many things have gone wrong in the 612. So many that a list is needed:

  • Byron Buxton (currently on the 10-day DL for a second time with his fractured left big toe) has only played 28 games — hitting .156/.183/.200 (-3 wRC+).
  • Miguel Sano, sent down to Single-A three weeks ago in hopes he can himself back on track, has only played 37 games hitting .203/.270/.405 (80 wRC+).
  • Lance Lynn has a bloated 5.22 ERA.
  • Former Ray Jake Odorizzi is still home run prone (1.4 HR/9) and only averaging 5.06 IP per start.
  • Another former Ray, Logan Morrison, has provided some pop (10 HR) but with a 21.2 K% and .193/.287/.367 slash line (79 wRC+).
  • Brian Dozier, batting .229/.312/.420 (99 wRC+), has played himself out of a qualifying offer in a contract year.
  • Ervin Santana has still yet to take the mound.
  • Jorge Polanco just returned after an 80-game suspension dealt for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance back in spring training.

Your face after all that, probably:

We’re barely past the halfway point of the season, and the Twins have already had one stretch where they lost 12 out of 14 games and another where they lost 11 of 13. Although the Rays have undergone such horrid stretches, they balanced them out with equally long win streaks. The same has not been the case for the Twins.

But here’s the catch, even though so many things have gone wrong through 90 games, a recent surge has made the playoffs a possible — albeit unlikely — goal, thanks to a weak division. A division dumpster fire, the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals have three of the four worst records in the AL. But because Cleveland hasn’t lit the world on fire this season either, the Twins are just 8.5 games out of the division lead — leaving them closer to a playoff spot than the Rays, believe it or not.

Minnesota will welcome the Rays as their last opponent of a make-or-break 11-game home stand. After a four-game sweep over the Orioles and a series win over the Royals, the Twins are 6-1 during the home stand and eight and a half games behind the Indians for the top spot in the AL Central. While that may still be a steep hill to climb, it’s a margin worth looking at for Twins executives who have to decide whether or not they should sell — especially after last year’s late-season surge.

What’s going right for the Twins, you ask? Well, utility man Eduardo Escobar is fourth in the entire league in extra base hits (51). Eddie Rosario, who was an American League final vote candidate for the All-Star game, has been great this season. He leads the club in hits (107), homers (18), RBI (54), wOBA (.367) and slugging percentage (.527). SP Jose Berrios, the sole Twins representative on the All-Star team this year, is in the midst of a breakout season and has posted an 9-7 record and 3.41 ERA while tallying 122 strikeouts in 121.1 innings (not quite as impressive as Blake Snell, but close).

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In all reality, Rosario likely should have been the selection over Berrios, which would have opened up a spot for Blake Snell, who’s been much more impressive and consistent than Berrios this season.

Speaking of starting pitchers, here are this weekend’s matchups:

Thursday: Blake Snell vs. Kyle Gibson

Friday: Nathan Eovaldi vs. Jake Odorizzi

Saturday: Chris Archer vs. Jose Berrios

Sunday: Ryan Yarbrough vs. Aaron Slegers

As I wrote last year, I’ve had the privilege of attending the majority of games the Rays have played in Minnesota since 2010. And to be honest, it almost feels supernatural when the Rays lose because they just haven’t done much of it in front of the Twins faithful.

Tampa Bay is 21-9 at Target Field since it opened in 2010 with a run differential of 151-79. They have flat out dominated the Twins in front of their home fans. And speaking of the Rays, they aren’t doing too bad themselves. Winners of 14 of their last 18 games, they head into Minneapolis four games over .500 and 9.5 games back of the Seattle Mariners for the second wild-card spot.

After a 3-12 start to the season, they have turned things around in a major way.

As a matter of fact, if the Rays go 42-28 from here on out, an attainable goal with a favorable schedule the rest of the way, they would reach 90 wins. Think about that for a second. THE RAYS COULD WIN 90 GAMES IN A REBUILDING YEAR!!!

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The pitching is going to gain some starters back in the next few weeks (Jacob Faria and Yonny Chirinos), Archer just returned, and they have a plethora of bullpen options. If they keep Wilson Ramos, some of these kids get hot, and Carlos Gomez leaps back above the replacement level, who knows what could happen?

Maybe the Rays can not only put a nail in the Twins’ coffin this weekend but also creak open their own playoff coffin a little. And sure, the playoffs likely aren’t happening, barring an incredible collapse over in Seattle, but I’m not counting this team out. Starting the year 3-12 should’ve buried them. Forty games in 41 games with two healthy starters should’ve buried them. Forty games with only three games against teams that weren’t above .500 should’ve buried them. Now they have a favorable schedule the rest of the way.

As we’ve learned time and time again through the first three and a half months of the season, with adversity punching from every direction, don’t bet against these Rays.

*Dan Slaubaugh is a contributing writer for DRaysBay. He will be covering the weekend series in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @DanSlaubaugh for updates and analysis from Target Field.