Sid Hartman
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The Twins took their first back-to-back losses of this young season against Toronto on Monday and Tuesday at Target Field before bouncing back for a 4-1 victory Wednesday night.

There’s no doubt the Twins could have won all those games, but the team still has to feel good about their solid 9-6 start through 15 games, despite having such an odd schedule with so many off days.

There is also no doubt the Twins’ Rocco Baldelli continues to learn on the job in his first season as a major league manager.

The decision by Twins baseball bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to hire Baldelli was the team’s biggest move of the offseason, but just as important was Derek Shelton’s return as bench coach after being a finalist for the Twins’ and Rangers’ managerial openings.

Shelton has played a key role in assisting Baldelli. The Twins knew there would be a big learning curve for their new manager, which is why bringing back Shelton — who has 15 years of coaching experience in the major leagues — was so important.

Shelton said that even though he competed with Baldelli to be Twins manager, the biggest reason he came back was his relationship with him.

“There were a number of factors. No. 1 was Rocco Baldelli,” Shelton said. “Not only did he and I work together [in Tampa Bay, where Shelton was a hitting coach] but we’re very good friends and I consider him a close friend.

“[The idea of] working with him was exciting. And the way Derek and Thad kind of laid out the role in terms of leadership-wise and my ability to have impact on our organization was probably the deciding factor.”

Shelton was Baldelli’s hitting coach in 2010 at Tampa Bay, Baldelli’s final season as a big league player. They then worked together for six seasons as Baldelli started his coaching career as a special assistant and baseball operations man for the Rays from 2011-2014 before becoming first base coach in 2015.

Shelton was asked what positives he saw in Baldelli.

“There’s not much not to like about the manager,” he said. “I think his greatest strength is how humble he is and his enviable humility. He is really smart, but he listens and takes advice and makes really strong decisions. I think it’s going to be a fun year with him.”

Shelton said his role is to make sure communication between Baldelli and the rest of the coaching staff is clear every day.

“There’s a lot of duties [as a bench coach],” he said. “My biggest duty is just to make sure on a daily basis that Rocco and I have conversations about what’s going on and how we’re going to do things and just a voice for him to bounce things off.”

And with the Twins off to a solid start this season, Shelton said the team’s goals for 2019 are clear.

“I think the goal is to be a playoff team,” he said. “To play meaningful games in September and put ourselves in a position to play games in October. That is our goal.”

Changes from 2018

Shelton was a key hire by the Twins last year, when he worked under then-manager Paul Molitor.

Falvey had known Shelton from their days together in Cleveland, where Falvey got his start in the big leagues in 2007. Shelton was the Indians hitting coach and made a big impression on Falvey.

Still, last year didn’t go as planned. The Twins went from making the AL wild-card game in 2017 to missing the postseason and finishing 78-84, which ultimately led to Molitor’s firing.

“We had some challenges last year,” Shelton said. “We had guys get hurt. We had guys miss some time. I think when you have that it causes challenges, and I think with the club we built this year and the people we’ve added, we hope we have more depth if things like that happen.”

With additions such as designated hitter Nelson Cruz, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and utility man Marwin Gonzalez, along with pitchers Blake Parker and Martin Perez, Shelton thinks the team took the right steps to make sure they can compete in the AL Central.

“I think we have done a nice job building a really efficient team with a lot of flexibility and guys who can play multiple positions,” he said. “Some of our younger kids have another year of experience under their belt.

“The fact that we added Marwin and he’s position-flexible. The bullpen guys we added and [first baseman] C.J. Cron had a great year last year for Tampa in the American League East, hit 30 home runs. I think when you add a guy like that, it really helps out, also.”

The Twins finished sixth in the AL in runs last season (738), and there’s no doubt the staff expects to be better.

“I think we can improve on that,” Shelton said. “I think we have a really deep lineup. I think one through nine, we’re going to be able to put pressure on [opponents] and we’re going to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Gophers hoops value

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting note during the Final Four: the Gophers men’s basketball team is worth an estimated $106.9 million, which ranks 16th among all NCAA Division I programs.

The values are a hypothetical number created by Ryan Brewer, an associate professor of finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.

The top-valued program is Kentucky at $334.2 million. Kansas ranks No. 2 at $319.5 million.

The Gophers are the seventh-highest valued Big Ten program behind No. 5 Indiana ($196.2 million), No. 10 Wisconsin ($131.8 million), No. 11 Illinois ($125.9 million), No. 12 Purdue ($124.7 million), No. 13 Ohio State ($117.3 million) and No. 14 Northwestern ($115.7 million).

Vikings’ big spending

The Vikings’ decision to sign wide receiver Adam Thielen to a four-year extension worth $64 million with incentives that could push it to $73 million last week was a no-brainer, given how important Thielen is to Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense.

It will be challenging for Rob Brzezinski, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, to continue staying within the salary cap. In 2020, the Vikings will owe Cousins $31 million, Stefon Diggs $14.5 million and Thielen $16 million. That’s about $61.5 million of the salary cap that should be top out somewhere around $190 million for the 53-man roster.

Still, if there’s anyone that can handle making the numbers work, it’s Brzezinski, who has always been given the directive to retain the team’s homegrown stars if possible.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com