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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”