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On The Horizon: Cubs vs. Twins Series Preview

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The Cubs continue interleague play in Minneapolis starting tonight.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I asked Jesse Lund, editor of SB Nation's Twins site Twinkie Town, to write me "a few paragraphs" about his team, since the Cubs and Twins only play every three years.

He gave me over 1,000 words, everything you'd like to know about the Minnesota Twins.

I shared some words about the Cubs for him to post, too. Not quite that many. Here's the Twinkie Town series preview.

Go grab a coffee, because this preview is a novel.

All winter I said that the Twins would surprise people this year, and surprise them quickly. Obviously I had no idea they'd be good enough to have the American League's best record in June, because I'm not crazy, but as an eternal optimist I did think the club was six or seven wins better than the 70-win trainwreck that was 2014.

Ultimately I think that's where they'll end up, although after banking so many early wins a .500 finish doesn't look as far-fetched as it would have been six months (or six weeks) ago. Right now, however, the Twins find themselves in a funk. All season their success was dependent on "good enough" starting pitching, a fairly reliable back-end of the bullpen, and an offense that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with the bases empty but managed to hit like an All-Star with runners on...and even better with runners in scoring position.

As those performances disappeared over the last couple of weeks, the Twins have hit their first real challenging stretch of the year. They're not scoring runs and the pitching hasn't been as consistent, and instead of winning 4-3 and 3-1 games they're losing them. Or they're losing 8-2. Or just losing, let's not pick nits over run differential - the point is that a club that regularly hits guys like Eduardo Nunez or Eduardo Escobar or Kurt Suzuki fifth probably shouldn't be expected to score a lot of runs, and that we shouldn't expect Mike Pelfrey to suddenly pitch like Greg Maddux.

That losing stretch is part of the reason that the club has called up Byron Buxton. He can absolutely help the team win more games than any other center fielder on the 40-man roster, but his arrival is also an emotional shot in the arm. There's a real chance that Miguel Sano is called up in the next week or two. Jorge Polanco, Alex Meyer, Josmil Pinto, Jose Berrios, not to mention the return of Oswaldo Arcia - there's so much young talent that will be pushing for playing time in Minnesota in the next couple of months that winning as many games in 2015 as possible almost seems superfluous. Every organization needs to balance the need to win now versus the need to keep winning in the future, but the Twins find themselves in a unique situation.

Instead of writing you a book about that, however, let's talk about Paul Molitor. Molitor's first few weeks as Minnesota's skipper have been fascinating - in part because of how well the team has played, but also because of the obvious things he does differently to his predecessor. Ron Gardenhire hated platoons, but Molitor has used them regularly (when he has a healthy club). As a bench coach for the Twins in 2014, Molitor introduced a good deal more defensive shifts; that number has positively exploded in 2015. Molitor isn't afraid to use Glen Perkins for a four- or five-out save, and in fact it's common for any reliever to go out and give the Twins four, five, six outs. The days of using two relievers in a single inning are relatively rare.

Beyond that, Molitor is known for his obsession to detail. It sounds cliche, but everything from pre-game preparation to player communication to making sure his defenders understand a hitter's tendencies (even when there's not a shift called, players may position themselves differently for certain hitters) to reading pitchers and base running to understanding an opposing pitcher's tendencies - all of these things are hammered into Twins players by a manager who seems to understand what it takes to wring every last ounce of talent from a roster. There are urban legends from Twins players about Molitor sitting in the dugout last year and calling out pitch sequences of opposing pitchers, and I don't doubt that they're true. It's been fascinating to watch him start to groom this young team.

On Friday night Cubs fans will get a look at Phil Hughes. Hughes hasn't been the pitcher he was in 2014, losing some of the effectiveness of that cutter as well as his laser-guided command. Laser summer he was baiting hitters up the latter and had the location to make it work. This year he's not elevating enough in those circumstances, and you can see the results in the home run totals. Saturday brings Trevor May, who may be the Twins' best starter through this point of the year. He's on pace for a 5.0 fWAR season, shocking - and I mean shocking - everyone with what has been some really good command. Fastballs that could have been dubbed lethal weapons in the past now nip the black of the plate at the knees. The curveball and change have been working. Sunday's starter will be Kyle Gibson. After a slow start he seems to be hitting his stride a little bit, getting more swings and misses and actually being able to use his curve and changeup as out pitches. Like May his off-speed stuff seems to come out more confidently this year. 

At the plate the Twins don't have anyone the Cubs really need to worry about right now. Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, and Torii Hunter all posted .950+ OPS marks in May, but June hasn't been as kind. There's definitely something wrong with Joe Mauer, but the club won't talk about it. I'm convinced he's still not fully recovered from the concussion Mauer suffered late in 2013. Compare his numbers from 2012 and 2013 to his numbers these last two seasons. That's not just the aging curve, folks.

Right now, if a Cubs fan wanted to know what to watch, I'd say to just watch the young guys. Buxton and May of course, but also Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas. The Cubs know all about playing talented young guys. Brian Dozier, who is undoubtedly one of the two or three best second basemen in the American League but doesn't get the credit he's due, is a lot of fun, too. This is a club that may not be quite ready to contend in 2015, but that next great Twins club is just around the bend.

I'm holding out hope for a Twins-Cubs World Series in 2016.

Pitching matchups

Game One: Kyle Hendricks (2-2, 3.80 ERA, 1.150 WHIP) vs.Phil Hughes (4-6, 4.79 ERA, 1.343 WHIP)

Game Two: Jon Lester (4-5, 3.99 ERA, 1.367 WHIP) vs. Trevor May (4-5, 4.26 ERA, 1.271 WHIP)

Game Three: Jake Arrieta (6-5, 3.40 ERA, 1.159 WHIP) vs. Kyle Gibson (4-5, 3.33 ERA, 1.247 WHIP)

Prediction

The Cubs appear to have the upper hand in all three pitching matchups in this series. The Twins' runs-scored and runs-allowed totals are both in the middle of the pack in the American League, and one reason they're contending early is Perkins, who's been pretty much lights-out this year with a 1.53 ERA, 0.989 WHIP, just four walks in 29⅓ innings, and a major-league-leading 23 saves. If the Cubs can avoid having to face Perkins, they can do well in this series. I'm going to call for a two games to one series win, largely on the strength of Cubs starting pitching.

Up next

The Cubs come home for a four-game series (and homestand) against the Los Angeles Dodgers starting Monday.