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Going deep: Twins' home run surge powers hopes for playoff run

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Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins
Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins hits a solo home run against the New York Yankees during the first inning of a game on July 22 at Target Field in Minneapolis. The Twins are on track to set a major league record for home runs this season.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

Whether you call them dingers, taters or bombas, the Minnesota Twins are hitting home runs in bunches this season. Twins batters have propelled the team to the top of the American League Central standings — and they’re poised to set a major league home run record.

In past seasons the Twins had a reputation as a team that played “small ball,” the style of play that relies on getting runners into scoring position and knocking them in with base hits or sacrifice flies.

But this season the Twins are more of a long-ball team. Meaning, a lot more of their runs are coming across the plate as a result of home runs.

Minnesota hitting coach James Rowson said he’s not encouraging players to swing for the fences every at-bat. He’s focused on learning how each player swings the bat and works on enhancing their natural abilities.

“Each guy has different strengths,” Rowson said in the Twins’ clubhouse a few hours before an afternoon game earlier this week. “And if they put their best swing on the ball consistently, like they’re doing every day, you hope it results in balls that are hit very hard. And those balls that are getting hit really hard for us are going out of the ballpark, consistently.”

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Eddie Rosario of the Minnesota Twins congratulates teammate Nelson Cruz (left) on a solo home run against the Chicago White Sox during the fourth inning of a game on Tuesday at Target Field.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

Rowson said team chemistry has also played a big part in the team’s success this year. New manager Rocco Baldelli has ushered in a more laid-back approach.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse was low-key before Wednesday’s game, as a few guys played dominoes and listened to music. Sluggers Miguel Sano and Nelson Cruz joked with Twins legend Tony Oliva.

Cruz and Sano are some of the most prolific members of the so-called “Bomba Squad.” The phrase, coined by teammate Eddie Rosario, is based on the Spanish word for “bomb.”

A sign with a message at a baseball stadium
This sign is posted above right field at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. The 2019 Twins are on pace to break the major leagues' team home run season record.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Cruz, who has hit 33 “bombas” so far this season, said he appreciates how team leaders have given players room to be themselves.

“They let you play free,” he said. “They let you be yourself — all in your clubhouse. Because this is our clubhouse. And from there we just have to follow.”

Cruz is a veteran player but he’s new to the Twins this year. For Byron Buxton, who has been a Twin since 2015, gelling with guys like Cruz hasn’t been a problem. He said that became apparent in spring training.

“Being in the same clubhouse in spring training — like the first couple of days we met — you could tell this was going to be a special group,” said Buxton, who is out of the lineup while nursing an injured shoulder. “Nobody was afraid to go up to each other and communicate.”

Baldelli is a first-time manager and he’s young; he’ll be turning 38 in a few weeks, which makes him about a year younger than Cruz, the team’s oldest player. Baldelli also keeps it light with the media during a regularly scheduled press scrum in his office.

Minnesota Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli
Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli (left) celebrates with Nelson Cruz after a 12-2 win over the Detroit Tigers on June 9, 2019 in Detroit.
Duane Burleson | Getty Images

When a beat reporter didn’t show for the day’s briefing, Baldelli called him and answered one of the reporter’s questions about the so-called “rally squirrel” which disrupted a few games earlier this week by scampering across the field.

“To be honest, I don’t know, but I think it’s one squirrel. I don’t think it’s a family,” deadpanned Baldelli as he kicked back in the chair of his office.

The young skipper is more serious about the key to the Twins’ success behind the plate. He said when players start lighting up the ball, it can spread to others. That’s because opposing pitchers can’t pitch around a hot hitter when the whole lineup is hitting the ball well.

“You try to put pressure on the other team,” said Baldelli. “By having good at-bats, by those other guys having good swings, we want to force the other team to have to make pitches to our entire lineup or we put a good swing on a ball.”

The Twins' Jorge Polanco
The Twins' Jorge Polanco celebrates his three-run homer in the second inning of a game against the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 3 at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Adam Bettcher | Getty Images

Twins fans have different explanations for the team’s offensive explosion this season.

John Jarmon of Fargo, N.D., said baseballs this year all over the major leagues seem to have a little extra oomph in them.

“I think they’re hitting the ball better, but I understand the ball might be a little more lively than usual,” he said, referring to the idea that major league baseballs may be “juiced,” or constructed in some way to make them fly farther than normal.

There has been a spike in the number of home runs hit in the big leagues over the last few years. However, all teams play with the same baseballs — and the Twins are hitting them farther than every other team this season.

A sign with a number outside a baseball stadium
The home run tally before Wednesday's Twins game against the Chicago White Sox. The major league record for a full season is 267.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

The Twins tally the number of long balls on a big sign on the right field plaza called the Bomba Counter. The current number, 244, is just 23 short of the record set last year by the New York Yankees.

Fan Linda Bahe said she doesn’t know why the Twins are hitting so many balls out of the park.

“I don’t know, but it is great to see. That’s why we came out here,” she said. “We’re going to root for them and we think they’re going to break the record.”

On Wednesday, the Twins were silent as the team fell to the White Sox, 4-0.

The Twins have 35 games left to set the season record. However, hitting coach Rowson said setting a new home run mark is not the Twins’ ultimate goal this year.

“You can take all those other records being broken and things like that,” he said. “They’re cool, but not nearly as cool as winning a world championship.”