Jim Souhan
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On Sunday morning, the Twins had won five of their previous six games and held a three-game lead in the American League Central.

On Wednesday afternoon, they lost their fourth straight game then flew to California, but without most of their relievers. Flammable containers are not allowed through airport checkpoints.

On Sunday, the Twins required 15 innings and 6 hours, 26 minutes to lose. In three games against Houston, they allowed 40 runs as their bullpen became statistically and aesthetically the worst in baseball.

The Twins have the first pick in the amateur draft in a couple of weeks. After watching the Astros series, they are trying to trade up.

Chris Gimenez pitched for the third time this season Wednesday. He is on pace to become the first backup catcher to require midseason Tommy John surgery.

This feels like the first crisis for a team that had spent much of the first two months of the season mimicking a contender. But in baseball, feelings rarely matter.

The 2017 Twins never should have been confused with true contenders. That doesn’t mean they can’t pretend for a while longer.

Their starting pitching is fragile, their bullpen was always a dumpster fire waiting for the right match, and their lineup is meek without Miguel Sano at his best.

But they already have proved they don’t need to be great to beat mediocre teams. And they’ll get to face a lot of mediocrity in the near future.

Thursday night, they begin a four-game series against the Angels, who were average with Mike Trout and should be beatable without him. That series begins a streak of 14 straight games against teams that had losing records entering Wednesday’s games.

The Twins’ fielding is generally excellent. When Sano hits, they score enough runs. If Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios can anchor the rotation, they might have just enough starting pitching to survive.

The bullpen is unwatchable, and the Twins might have to delve into their Class AA pitching staff for help. Lefthander Mason Melotakis is pitching well at Chattanooga and may have to make his debut ahead of the Twins’ preferred timetable.

Twins manager Paul Molitor had to overuse a few relievers the past four days. But, as he said, “Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper.”

He was referring to a pitchers’ competitive soul, but he might as well have been referencing the Twins’ farm system.

Most seasons, a poor homestand preceding a West Coast trip would feel as if it were a death sentence, but this team and this season have proved to be unusual.

The Twins are 12-18 at home and 14-5 on the road. They have another scheduling factor in their favor: They get to play a lot of games against AL Central teams. The Twins are 16-12 against the Central and 10-11 against other teams.

More notably, they are 1-5 against teams featuring lineups deep with power hitters — the Red Sox and Astros, who are either the best or scariest team in the game.

“They’re a hot team playing loose,” Molitor said.

Vegas pegged the 2017 Twins to win anywhere from 72 to 75 games. They won 59 a year ago.

This is a far better team than last year’s, but one that may be a year or two from meaningful contention.

That was the expected timeline entering this season. Any success this season is a bonus.

The proper goal for this team should be to hang around the top of the division as long as possible, then try to finish above .500 for the second time since 2010.

Playing teams from the AL Central — Major League Baseball’s version of a football team scheduling Southwest Louisiana Tech State — makes that a realistic goal.

“The road gets rough, sometimes,” Molitor said.

But there are enough well-paved stretches of schedule to enable even a reeling team to recover.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com