On Sunday, Nelson Cruz homered again. It was his fourth straight game in which he went yard, in his first five games back from the injured list. No big deal for a guy who came into this season with 203 home runs over the previous five seasons, right? Back in December, the Minnesota Twins signed the 38-year-old designated hitter to provide this kind of power. But what they didn't necessarily anticipate was that Cruz would be just one slugger among many, because today's Twins are putting on an unprecedented display of power at the plate, virtually a season-long Home Run Derby.
Even when they've had to do it without Cruz, the Twins' offense has performed at an unprecedented rate. Their 388 runs scored are the most through 65 games since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961. They have done it by hammering 127 home runs in those 65 games this season, also their most through 65 games in franchise history, well ahead of their previous record of 101 in 1964.
Right now, the Twins are currently on pace to hit a whopping 317 home runs, which would shatter the franchise record of 225 set in 1963, and blow by the major-league record of 267 set by the Yankees just last season. Those Yankees had 109 home runs through 65 games last season -- 18 fewer than the Twins at the same point.
How in the name of Harmon Killebrew did that happen? Because as things stand, a talented and diverse cast of characters are refusing to live down to most preseason predictions that they'd be also-rans in the American League Central, as they've taken the division by storm and put themselves into the conversation as one of the best teams in baseball on the strength of their 44-21 record.
For starters, the Twins' clubhouse is not one governed by rules. Rookie manager Rocco Baldelli preaches personal responsibility, but does it in a manner in which each player feels accountable without feeling burdened by having to conform to strict norms and regulations.
"We have high expectations for our players. They are not demands," Baldelli explained. "We want our players to be relaxed when they show up to the field. The more confident and relaxed you are when you show up and the more comfortable you are, I think the better you play."
That philosophy comes from Baldelli's relatively recent experience as a major league player in a career that ended in 2010. Forced to retire at 29 for his health, Baldelli is just 37 years old -- younger than his starting DH. He spent the years since in the savvy Rays organization, earning increasing coaching responsibilities before getting the Twins' job over the winter.
His philosophy is embraced by the entire organization, as explained by hitting coach James Rowson.
"Rocco believes in the importance of being yourself, getting your rest, and coming to the field and doing what you need to get yourself ready to play the game," Rowson said. "He has done a great job getting that through to the guys. For example, our batting practice is optional every day. We don't have mandatory batting practice. We leave the choice up to them. ... If guys aren't taking batting practice, they go down into the tunnels and get their work in. They find a routine that they feel like their body is well-rested."
That can matter a lot in a sport with a six-month grind of playing every day for the regular season, which could produce a late-season payoff.
"I feel like we save them a lot of swings. And I think rest is going to pay big dividends late," Rowson added.
It has been a welcome respite for players that have spent most of their careers with the Twins organization, as well as players who have recently joined the team from other organizations.
"Rocco understands what his players need to get ready to perform," said third baseman Miguel Sano, who made his debut with the Twins in 2015. Sanó is exactly the sort of slugger who could benefit from Baldelli's approach, having never gotten into more than 116 games in a single MLB season, and coming back from an injury-shortened 2018 season and injury-marred spring.
"He talks to us, plays with us, jokes around with us; he's a real part of the team and leads by example," Sanó said. "We work very hard, but we do it relaxed. There isn't that pressure we felt in the past. We are being treated and trusted as major leaguers, as the professionals we are."
"Every player dreams of things being like this," said outfielder Eddie Rosario, who, like Sanó, is in his fifth season with Minnesota. With 19 home runs, Rosario is one of the breakout slugging stars of the Twins' season so far. "In the past, our manager would really focus on practice and, if we didn't work out in a particular way, he believed things would not go well. Every manager has a different personal style, and Rocco really cares about our rest and our bodies. He wants us to be 100 percent the entire year, but at the same time, he lets us be ourselves."
That can be especially important for a Twins lineup staffed with players who, as prospects, were the stuff of big expectations -- expectations they're delivering on this season.
In addressing their unprecedented success at the plate, several of the younger Twins credit Cruz as well. Despite a wrist injury limiting him to 40 games so far this season, Cruz made an immediate impact in a clubhouse clamoring for leadership.
"This is an environment where you are free to be yourself," noted Cruz, ever the voice of experience. "No matter who you are, most weeks you will have a day off. If you feel like you need practice, then you practice, if you feel like you need a workout, you work out. It's been a very smart approach on Rocco's part, and it's something I had not seen with any other team."
"He'll probably get mad at me because he'll think I'm calling him old, but he's like another coach, for us," second baseman Jonathan Schoop said with a smile about playing with Cruz. "He goes outside and sees if he can pick something on the pitcher. Even me, during at-bats, I will look at him. He gives us advice. He is one of the best teammates I've ever played with."
With the breathing room that Baldelli has created in the clubhouse, the benefits of Cruz's experience plays up among his younger teammates.
"Nelson Cruz is a tremendous person," said Jorge Polanco, the Twins' longest-tenured position player despite being just 25 years old, having made his debut before his 21st birthday when he was briefly called up midseason in 2014. With 10 home runs through Tuesday, the shortstop is a good bet to eclipse his single-season career high (13) before the All-Star break, the slugging signature in his emergence as an early MVP candidate.
"That's the kind of player you want to be, like Nelson Cruz," Polanco said. "He's a leader. He'll look at both what you are doing well and what you are doing wrong. If he feels he has to talk to you, he talks to you. And you listen to Nelson Cruz."
"It helps a lot to have veteran players like Nelson," newcomer Marwin Gonzalez added. An experienced super-utility man, Gonzalez joined the Twins as a free agent from the Astros, where he had been part of a young group of players that ultimately grew into a World Series winner in 2017 -- with the aid of a veteran DH of their own.
"A player of that caliber, with that much experience, like Nelson, like it was with Carlos Beltran when I was with the Astros, that's essential," Gonzalez said. "He's always there at the right moment, telling you what you need to hear or giving you that extra push you may need to overcome whatever it is you're dealing with. Having a player like that is fundamental to have a competitive team that can go deep into the playoffs."
And while some hitting coaches might feel threatened by outside input, Rowson more than welcomes the value of Cruz's perspective to his young charges.
"This is a team, it's an offensive effort, but Nelson Cruz has been every bit as important as my role would be, or as [assistant hitting coach] Rudy Hernandez's role would be," Rowson said. "I ask him as many questions probably as anybody just in terms of what he is seeing out there. He has tons of experience that he can use and I feel like there is no better kind of teacher."
"He has a different view of it, because it's what I call a 'live view,' the view that no coach has, because we don't go up there and take at-bats," Rowson added. "We want him to use that, we want him to take that role with our guys and with this team. There is just one group and anything that can help us be the best offense in baseball, we're going to use it that way. He is a big part of it."
"A lot [of] these guys were very good players to start with. We're not recreating," Baldelli said. "We have guys with really good ability and I think some of them are just coming into their own. If we can help create the environment to allow these guys to just be themselves and turn into the players they can be, so be it. All of the coaches, it's our job to kind of mirror or basically to show everyone it's OK to relax, it's OK to enjoy yourself, it's OK to work hard, it's OK to do all these things."
That's more than MLB-brand management modesty talking. Big things were always expected of players like Sano and Buxton. The difference, though, is that they're among the many hitters thriving under the new regime as the relaxed, rested and raking Twins take aim at winning a division title -- and maybe a place for themselves in the record book while they're at it.
Cruz bringing leadership to Twins
Marly Rivera breaks down the veteran leadership Nelson Cruz is bringing to the first-place Twins.