What we’ve learned during the Minnesota Twins winning streak: 3 takeaways

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What we’ve learned during the Minnesota Twins winning streak: 3 takeaways

And just like that, the Minnesota Twins have gone from rock bottom at 7-13 to the hottest team in baseball, winning seven consecutive games to claw their way back to a winning record for the first time since the opening week of the season.

It’s fair to note the winning streak has come against the lowly Chicago White Sox and only slightly less lowly Los Angeles Angels, but wins are wins, especially for a team that was struggling as much as the Twins. Plus, they’re far from finished with the White Sox, starting a three-game series Monday night in Chicago as part of nine remaining games against the American League’s worst team.

Better yet, Carlos Correa’s return to a suddenly hot-hitting lineup is imminent.

Here are three Twins takeaways after a weekend spent sweeping the Angels.

Ober cutting through lineups

Bailey Ober’s first start of the season was the worst start of his career. Facing the Royals in Kansas City, he failed to make it out of the second inning, allowing three homers and eight total runs. It was so uncharacteristically bad, and added to his already abysmal history versus the Royals, that Ober and manager Rocco Baldelli both questioned if Kansas City “had something” on him.

Ober won’t have another chance to face the Royals before late May, but in the meantime he’s responded to the season-opening stumble with a dominant four-start stretch that ranks among the best of his career. Culminating with Friday’s road win over the Angels in which Ober tied a career-high with 7 1/3 innings, he has a 1.48 ERA since the Kansas City clunker.

He tossed five innings of one-run ball versus the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers, surrendered a total of one run in back-to-back six-inning starts against the rival Detroit Tigers and no-hit the Angels into the sixth inning. Overall, across four starts, Ober posted a 24-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 1/3 innings, giving up zero homers and a .136 opponents’ batting average.

Don’t let his mediocre-looking 4.21 ERA mask the fact that Ober is pitching better than ever. His fastball is averaging a career-high 92.3 mph, his changeup is generating a career-best 42.6 percent swing-and-miss rate to emerge as a real weapon versus left-handed hitters, and he’s seamlessly incorporated a new cutter as part of what is now a five-pitch arsenal for the 6-foot-9 strike-thrower.

“It’s been great,” Ober said of his new cutter. “It feels good right now and I feel like the main thing I’m able to do with it is get it glove-side. Be able to locate it in to lefties and away to righties. And that is really setting up everything else. I’m able to throw my slower, bigger breaking ball off that and get the changeup fading away.”

Ober has quickly gained confidence in the cutter as a go-to pitch versus righties and lefties, throwing it 26 percent of the time, second to only his fastball. And rightfully so, as opponents have done little against it, batting just .200 with one extra-base hit. It’s another useful tool for Ober, who has consistently improved his velocity and refined his individual pitches since debuting in 2021.

Ober tends to fly under the radar because he lacked the raw stuff in the minors to rank as a top prospect, but he’s been one of the most effective starters in Twins history with a 114 ERA+ in 62 starts. In the past 30 years, only Johan Santana (175 starts, 141 ERA+) and Ervin Santana (85 starts, 116 ERA+) have made more starts with a better ERA+ than Ober in a Twins uniform.

First glimpse of Slamtana

When a previously struggling lineup scores 57 runs in seven games, including back-to-back double-digit outbursts, there’s obviously going to be a lot to like, but the most encouraging aspect might be the thawing of Carlos Santana’s bat.

Signed to a one-year, $5.25 million contract as the biggest-money and biggest-name addition of the Twins’ offseason, Santana hit .141 with zero homers in his first 20 games. That naturally led to questions about how long the Twins should stick with the 38-year-old first baseman, but multiple team officials downplayed the possibility of giving up on Santana, or any well-respected veteran, this early.

“As long as they are putting in the work, we are putting in the work right beside them,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said last week. “The most important thing we can do is create an environment that supports them. We are all in this to try to figure it out together. If we have to assess those more difficult realities, we do that a little bit later. It’s usually not a couple of weeks into the season.”

Patience with Santana has started to pay off. At minimum, he bought himself some more time by hitting .286/.355/.679 over the seven-game winning streak, including a homer in three straight games. Santana’s season totals are still ugly, but that stretch raised his batting average from .133 to .182 and his OPS from .374 to .583. And he’s been as advertised defensively, providing an upgrade at first base.

Rehabbing relievers Duran, Topa near returns

Jhoan Duran brushed off the lack of his typically jaw-dropping fastball velocity after averaging “only” 98.1 mph in his first Triple-A rehab appearance last Tuesday, noting that it was his first game action in nearly six weeks and he was focusing on simply throwing strikes. Duran, who has been out since spring training with an oblique strain, allowed two runs on four hits.

Sure enough, Duran looked much more like his normal, overpowering self in Saturday’s second rehab outing with the Saints, averaging 101.8 mph with his fastball in a scoreless, 1-2-3 inning. Duran topped out at 102.9 mph, struck out two and got whiffs on six of eight swings, suggesting the Twins’ closer is on the verge of coming off the injured list. And he (and Correa) may not be alone.

Justin Topa, who’s also been sidelined since spring training with knee tendinitis, appears close to joining the Twins’ bullpen as well. He started a Triple-A rehab stint with a scoreless inning Thursday, striking out all three batters he faced, but Topa’s scheduled Sunday appearance was rained out. His velocity Thursday was down a tick or two from the right-hander’s mid-90s norm last season.

Acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Jorge Polanco trade, Topa was slated to slot fourth in the bullpen pecking order behind Duran, Griffin Jax and Brock Stewart. Twins relievers have fared shockingly well despite missing two top arms, posting a 2.62 ERA with 123 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings to reinforce the idea that they project as one of the best bullpens in baseball if/when everyone is healthy.

(Photo of Carlos Santana: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)