Five unsung heroes for the surprising first place Twins

The Twins have succeeded this season by virtue of both diminished expectations and actual results, making them hard to read but easy to enjoy as long as you can stop asking yourself every five minutes just how in the world they keep getting it done.

Their nine-game stretch against quality AL East opponents, circled for weeks as a time that we would learn a lot about this team, just finished.

Whether the baseline for success was “win one game out of nine,” the hilarious and perhaps tongue-in-cheek bar set by Patrick Reusse before the stretch started, or if you wanted to see quite a bit more than that, you got it. The Twins went 5-4 against the Jays, Yankees and Rays, knocking around some of the best pitchers in baseball in the process.

As Reusse and I talked about on Monday’s Daily Delivery podcast, it’s still possible to quibble with some of the details. But it’s hard to ignore the results of a 35-27 team that remains in first place in the AL Central.

The overall record and recent stretch becomes even more impressive when one considers the depth needed to pull it off.

While the Twins have certainly relied on top performers like Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan to carry the load at times, all four of those players — and plenty more — have been sidelined and/or ineffective for other parts of this season.

The play of “others” tends to go unnoticed. So here is a look at five unsung heroes who have been instrumental to the Twins’ success this season. Tap on their names for complete season and career statistics.:

Devin Smeltzer: The lefty, who wasn’t in the rotation at the beginning of the year, started two of the Twins’ five wins during this recent stretch. Given that arguably the Twins’ top three starting pitchers at the start of the season — Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober — didn’t make a single start in the nine-game gauntlet because they are all injured, Smeltzer’s contributions have been vital. Overall, in six starts, he’s 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA.

Trevor Larnach: He’s been pretty much an every day player since returning from a groin injury May 22. Though his productivity has dipped a bit lately, he’s still more than holding his own with a .786 OPS.

Gio Urshela: He’s second on the team with 55 games played, is steady at third base and takes quality at bats. Whatever you think about “clutch” stats, it should be noted that Urshela has had several big hits and is batting .381 in “close and late” situations this season.

Griffin Jax: After being deployed as mainly a starting pitcher and allowing a ghastly 23 home runs in 82 innings last season as a rookie, Jax has been deployed out of the bullpen this year with much greater success. Knowing he will throw a limited number of pitches, Jax’s average fastball velocity is 95.1 this year compared to 92.6 last year. It’s helped him keep the ball in the park (three homers allowed in 29.1 innings over 19 appearances) while boosting his strikeout rate. Overall, Jax has a 2.76 ERA and the Twins are 16-3 when he has pitched this season.

Emilio Pagan: The right-handed reliever earned his reputation as an escape artist early in the year, surviving messy innings on very thin margins. But he’s been working much cleaner in his last 10 outings and pitched three scoreless innings over three appearances with five strikeouts in the Twins’ 5-4 stretch against the AL East.

With Chris Paddack out for the season, it’s imperative the Twins get value from Pagan to keep the Taylor Rogers trade from looking like a disaster.

Honorable mention: Rocco Baldelli. The Twins manager can be polarizing because of the way he deploys pitchers and rests players, but the results are in his favor. The Twins have won the AL Central in two of his three seasons at the helm, and they are leading it again this year even with all the roster attrition.

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