Count me among the pleasantly surprised and shocked Minnesota Twins fans in the world. Not since 1991 have I been so surprised by one of our teams. Granted, we’re only one-quarter of the way through the grueling baseball season, but I think everyone would agree that being in second place and 8 games over .500 at this point in the season is more than remarkable.

I’ll admit to being more than skeptical about the decision to name Paul Molitor as manager. Sure, the guy had a great (and long) playing career, and he’d proven himself to have a great baseball mind, but those things do not automatically translate to being quality managerial material. I was hoping for someone who had successfully rebuilt franchises wherever he had been–think a Jim Leyland type, but without the chain smoking and colorful vocabulary–and had the ability to quickly bring along young talent while building a really strong pitching staff.

And while the Torii Hunter signing was big, it was another of a long line of signings meant to bring home the old guys so they could finish their careers at home. Granted, some of these were successful (Molitor, Winfield, Morris, Blyleven), but others just were a chance for someone to end their career quietly. It’s always dicey when you’re signing a guy who’s nearing his 40th birthday. Experience and clubhouse presence is one thing, but making on-field contributions on a daily basis is an entirely different matter.

So the Ervin Santana signing was huge. Finally, we seemed to snag a top-line starting pitcher who could help anchor an otherwise mediocre pitching staff. He looked okay going through spring training, so it looked like we’d picked up a guy who could eat up some innings and keep us in games every fifth day. Then right before the team broke camp, he was hit with the 80 game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.

Anyone else in class remember that first week plus? Our 1-6 start? The fact that the Twins scored 1 run in the entire series against Detroit? We looked entirely mismatched and unable to do anything right on either side of the ball.

What a difference a month makes. The Twins are 16-6 so far in May after that 10-12 April. They’re 15-6 at home. After starting out with a .243 batting average in April, the team has picked it up to .263 in May and have almost doubled their home run output for the month. The pitching has dropped April’s team ERA from 4.36 to 4.05 as of yesterday.

So what’s happening? It’s the old baseball maxim about confidence. But there aren’t any individual players on the roster who you can instantly point to and say they’re the reason things are going so well. But the team is playing better and, more importantly, working harder and smarter. There’s been a noticeable improvement in fielding, much smarter hitting, especially in situations with runners on; fantastic baserunning, taking every advantage of their young speed; and solid, confident pitching. And all of that can indeed be traced back to the manager. Molitor’s made a huge amount of difference this year.

That isn’t to say Gardenhire wasn’t a great manager, but I am saying that he’d be good for a team of skilled veterans who know how to win, but hadn’t been working together for a while. Molitor, on the other hand, has proven that hard work on the fundamentals, with hands-on teaching is the way to get things done with this group.

Sure, we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, and there’s plenty of opportunity to struggle through the rest of the season, but I think this team will, at the very least, be entertaining and fun to watch.

And don’t forget that Santana will be back in just over a month…

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