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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking surprise division standings with Twinkie Town

The Tigers usually fare well against the Twins, but this season the rivalry may prove more exciting.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Typically when the Minnesota Twins come to town it’s considered an easy series for the Tigers. Last season the Tigers went 14-4 against the Twins, and usually when the division rivals meet up things tip in favor of Detroit. This year, however, things may prove to be more interesting. The Twins are currently leading the Central Division with a 5-1 record, the kind of start that’s surprising to everyone, including Twins fans.

Leading into the first of many series between the two teams, we took the time to chat with Maija Varda of SB Nation’s Twins blog, Twinkie Town. We talked about the team’s surprising start, what to expect from their pitchers, and what Tigers fans might have to look forward to during the three game series.

BYB: First things first: holy crackers the Twins are on top of the division. What? I know it’s early, but how exciting a start to the year is this for fans?

TT: Well, most Twins fans (myself included) did not see this coming. After a 103-loss season last year--which, yes, was the worst in Twins history--having such a hot start is pretty big. It has affirmed some faith in the new front office and direction of the team, but I still feel like at least half of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What do you think is working well this year (aside from a lot of Royals walks) that has made such a big difference right out of the gate?

The outfield defense. Holy hell, the outfield defense. When you have a team notoriously known for “pitching to contact,” having players who can actually catch the balls contact was made with makes a huge difference. The Twins started last year with Oswaldo Arcia (a.k.a. Delmon Young 2.0) and freakin’ Miguel Sano as their corner outfielders. Having Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler as the corner outfielders to start 2017 has made a huge and immediate difference.

Plus, Byron Buxton is still Byron Buxton--defensively, at least. Even though he hasn’t been hitting anything, he’s been worth his weight in defensive runs saved. He’s super fast, a joy to watch, and catches everything.

Hector Santiago started the season with a limited pitch count, but now the restrictions seem to be lifted. What can the Tigers expect from him?

Your guess is as good as mine. Santiago was extremely shaky when he came over to the Twins from the Angels last season in the Ricky Nolasco trade. Fans don’t really trust him or understand why he is still here. I was very honestly surprised he was as competent as he was last Wednesday against the Royals, giving up only one run in five innings.

I think Twins fans are even more surprised that Risky Nolasco somehow earned the Opening Day start for the Angels this year, though.

With Phil Hughes coming back after missing the bulk of the 2016 season, how much of a short leash do you think he’ll be on? He pitched well in Chicago but do you think Molitor will be quick to pull him if he’s showing signs of fatigue?

Well, Hughes missed most of last year because he elected to get surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, which is the thing where they remove a rib under the throwing arm. Because of that change, I think Hughes is a bit of a question mark for the Twins going into the season, and he might get a longer leash than people think. He looked good in his first outing, giving up only one earned run over six innings.

The Twins did, however, make the controversial decision of starting the season with 13 pitchers on the roster and leaving Korean slugger Byung Ho Park in the minors. They did that mainly so they would have extra guys there to bail out the likes of Hughes, Santiago, or Adalberto Mejia should they struggle right away. Tyler Duffey, who nearly won the fifth spot in the rotation, and Rule 5 pick Justin Haley, are both semi-starters the Twins have stashed away in the bullpen should the short leash be used.

Division rivalries are often tough and the Tigers tend to do well against the Twins historically. Of 18 games last season the Tigers won 14. With the lineup for the Tigers being mostly unchanged this year how do you think the Twins will approach the team differently this year?

To be quite honest, most teams got the better of the Twins last year. They lost 103 games. I don’t think the Twins have any particular special approach to the Tigers this year, and if they do, it’s certainly not something I’m privy to at this point.

What I do think is that the Twins will just try to keep capitalizing on what is going right for them so far this season, which is: 1.) good outfield defense, 2.) new catcher Jason Castro’s pitch framing skills helping the pitching, and 3.) using crazy new lineups that maximize players getting on base and scoring runs, or something. Seriously, the line-ups have been crazy. Joe Mauer--who walks and hits singles--has mostly been the cleanup hitter most of the time so far this year. But hey, don’t fix what’s not broken?

Which Tigers player do you think will be the biggest problem for the Twins?

Considering the fact Miguel Cabrera has hit six home runs in 47 career at-bats off Phil Hughes--professional home-run giver-upper--I’ll go with that. Miguel Cabrera.

Thanks to Maija for stopping by for the chat, and be sure to check out Twinkie Town for your Twins needs all year long. We can’t wait to see how things unfold between the Twins and the Tigers this season.