Sid Hartman
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There is no question the Twins’ expectations have changed dramatically from the start of the 2019 season to where they are now as the club hosts TwinsFest this weekend at Target Field.

They are coming off a 101-61 season, the club’s most wins since 1965, when they went 102-60, and the fact is that their success last season was the biggest surprise in baseball.

From 2010 to 2018, the Twins had finished in last place in the Central Division four times, in fourth place once and in second place three times.

They lost 103 games in 2016, the most in franchise history, and the idea that three years later they would post the second-most wins in club history was unfathomable.

Heading into the 2019 season, the team had watched as attendance dropped from a high of 3.2 million in 2010 all the way down to 1.95 million in 2018, the lowest mark in the history of Target Field.

On top of that, the club had been hit hard by injuries and suspensions in 2018, when they finished 78-84.

Jorge Polanco missed 81 games for performance-enhancing drugs. Miguel Sano played in just 71 games and hit an abysmal .199. Byron Buxton played in just 28 games and hit .156 with four RBI.

The Twins also lost two of their most marketable stars in 2018 when they dealt second baseman Brian Dozier at the trade deadline and when Joe Mauer retired at the end of the season.

The only two players who showed signs of breaking out were Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, as the two outfielders at least kept the Twins competitive for the bulk of the season.

Then then after the 2018 season the club fired Paul Molitor — who had won the American League Manager of the Year award one year prior — and hired the unproven Rocco Baldelli from the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

Baldelli had never managed a day in his life.

Cleveland had dominated

Along with the uncertainty around the Twins, the Cleveland Indians were considered one of the premier franchises in baseball.

Cleveland had won the previous three American League Central titles, reached the World Series in 2016 and over those three seasons had gone 32-25 against the Twins.

The talking heads around baseball had no doubt about who was going to be the best club in the Central in 2019.

ESPN had 31 experts across their baseball departments pick who they thought would win the division before the season, and only three picked the Twins while the remaining 28 picked the Indians. Of seven experts on NBC Sports, only one picked the Twins. And it was the same story at Sports Illustrated, where eight of nine experts picked Cleveland.

Before the season began, Twins owner Jim Pohlad told me the club was going through one of the biggest changes in club history. Not only had they hired Baldelli and lost Mauer, they also were fully embracing the plans of Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine.

“We’re committed, and we understand all of this is a long-term process,” Pohlad told me at the time. “It’s not about hiring a magician or magicians and they come in and perform a magic trick that brings in world championships. It’s a long process, and you build for the long term.”

The fact is that right now this club is in the best position it has been in since 2002, when they started their dominant run of winning six AL Central titles in nine seasons.

No one predicted that one year ago.

Vikings road challenges

Even though people complain about Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s ability to win games on the road, the fact is that he has gone 23-24-1 on the road during the regular season since he was hired in 2014 — the ninth-best mark in the NFL over that stretch.

The only teams that have better road records in that stretch are the Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, Cowboys, Steelers, Saints, Falcons and Rams — a collection of the best teams in the league.

In 2020 the Vikings will face the Bears, Lions, Packers, Texans, Colts, Saints, Buccaneers and Seahawks in road games. Zimmer’s record against those teams on the road is as follows: Chicago 2-4, Detroit 4-2, Green Bay 2-3-1, New Orleans 1-1, Tampa Bay 1-0 and Seattle 0-2. He has never faced Houston or Indianapolis on the road.

Still, if you want a reason for optimism about their schedule, consider that the eight teams the Vikings will face on the road next season went a combined 35-29 at home in 2019.

The Packers had the best home record, going 7-1, while both the Buccaneers and Lions went just 2-6 at home. The Colts, Texans and Saints all posted winning records at home.

JOTTINGS

• Twins President Dave St. Peter gave a health update on several players: “[Byron Buxton] got a full clean bill of health from our trainers. He’s great. Nelson Cruz is also rehabbing in the Dominican Republic. He expects to come in ready to go in spring training. [Jorge] Polanco the same. Eddie Rosario came into town a few weeks ago and looks strong. We feel pretty good about our health.”

• Bovada out of Las Vegas has posted its over/under win totals for the 2020 MLB season, and the Twins are third on the list at 92½, trailing only the Yankees (101½) and Dodgers (98½).

• The Twins signed reliever Tyler Clippard to a one-year deal, and in his 13-year career he has allowed two hits in six appearances with nine strikeouts at Target Field.

• The fact that the Gophers football team will face Iowa at home on a Friday for the third game of the season in 2020 was already a surprise, but now the athletic department has announced the Gophers will open the 2021 season with Ohio State at home on Thursday, Sept. 2.

• The word is that former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill is leaving Virginia Tech after four months as a special assistant to head coach Justin Fuente to take a similar position with Gary Patterson at TCU. Tech just named former Gophers coach Tracy Claeys, a longtime assistant with Kill, linebackers coach.

• Pro Football Focus looked back at the 2015 NFL draft and said the Vikings made the best selections in the league, bringing in Stefon Diggs, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Trae Waynes. Their regrade of the 2016 draft ranked the Vikings 21st because of the struggles of first-round pick Laquon Treadwell and fourth-rounder Willie Beavers.

• Former Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio is posting career highs in points (13.3) and assists (9.2) per game with the Suns.

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