By Cliff Corcoran

On Thursday morning, for the ninth day in a row, the Twins woke up alone in the second Wild Card position in the American League. For all the uncertainty that has surrounded that final playoff spot in the American League, and for as close as the race remains, the Twins have held onto it for all but one of the past 25 days. Many may have scoffed at Minnesota's early success this season. However, with fewer than 20 games left in their season, the Twins may yet have the last laugh.

That's not to say there wasn't reason to doubt them. Despite spending 50 days in first place in the AL Central, including every day from May 11 to June 16, the Twins didn't top a 17 percent chance of making the postseason, per MLB.com's postseason projections, until Aug. 11. From there, they climbed to a season-high chance of 52 percent this past Saturday, becoming just the sixth AL team to exceed 50 percent at any point after the first week of the season.

The Twins had by far their best month of the season in August, going 20-10 with a +57 run differential, the first month in which they had outscored their opponents since being +4 in April. Their poor run differential prior to August was the primary source of the skepticism about the team. With their 3-0 loss to the Padres on Aug. 1, they fell to 50-54 on the season with a -75 run differential, the latter of which was the third-worst mark in the league.

The primary source of that deficit was their pitching, which had allowed 5.2 runs per game to that point in the season despite a hot start by veteran Ervin Santana and the mid-May emergence of top rotation prospect Jose Berrios. Aware of that shortcoming, the team traded for Braves lefty Jaime Garcia on July 24. However, as they subsequently sank below .500 despite Garcia winning his first (and ultimately only) Twins start, they had second thoughts and flipped Garcia to the Yankees and closer Brandon Kintzler to the Brewers.

Despite those trades, the Twins' rotation coalesced around Berrios in August, with Santana having perhaps his best month since April, organizational soldier Kyle Gibson posting a 3.10 in seven starts since being recalled from Triple-A on August 5, and 44-year-old* Bartolo Colon, who signed a Minor League deal in early July after being released by the Braves, posting a 3.40 ERA in August with the team going 5-1 in his starts. With veteran Matt Belisle getting the job done as closer (converting seven of eight save opportunities thus far with a 3.27 ERA and 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio since August 1), and 26-year-old rookie righties Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz adding unexpected depth to the bullpen, the Twins allowed just four runs per game last month.

*Colon has been around so long he faced Minnesota manager Paul Molitor ten times over Molitor's final two seasons, with the skipper going 2-for-8 with a pair of walks and a strikeout against the right-hander.

While the pitching went from awful to good, the offense went from sub-par to great, scoring 5.9 runs per game in August, compared to 4.5 (against a league average of 4.7) through the end of July. The Twins hit .280/.351/.498, as a team, in August. On the month, only the Cubs scored more runs than the Twins' 177, only the Orioles hit more home runs or collected more total bases than the Twins' 50 and 505, and only the Angels and Red Sox had more than Minnesota's 22 stolen bases (at an 85 percent success rate).

Since the calendar flipped to September, the pitching, with the surprising exception of Gibson (1.38 ERA in two starts), has regressed, allowing 5.4 runs per game. The lineup, however, remains hot, despite losing slugger Miguel Sano to a shin injury in late August. Just look at what the top five men in the Twins' lineup have done since each caught fire in August:

Hitter

AVG/OBP/SLG

HR

PA

Since

Brian Dozier

.303/.404/.613

13

183

Aug. 4

Joe Mauer

.411/.459/.548

1

135

Aug. 10

Jorge Polanco

.350/.409/.636

8

165

Aug. 1

Eddie Rosario

.299/.329/.586

12

173

Aug. 1

Byron Buxton

.328/.359/.664

9

129

Aug. 10

Each has cooled off slightly in September, but the bottom of the order has started carrying more weight with designated hitter Robby Grossman red-hot since returning from a fractured thumb on Sept. 5, and Eduardo Escobar hitting six home runs in the first 12 games of the month.

Also working in the Twins' favor is their relatively soft remaining schedule combined with just how few games remain overall. On Tuesday, Minnesota opened a homestand that welcomes the Padres and Blue Jays to Target Field and won the first two games by a combined score of, 19-1. After that, seven of the Twins' final 13 games, the last three of them back home, are against the Tigers. By way of comparison, the Angels, currently the Twins' closest rivals, are just two games behind Minnesota for that last AL playoff spot and will face the Astros four more times, and the Indians, Rangers and Mariners three times each, those matchups comprising 15 of their remaining 19 games. The Rangers, four games back, have seven games left against the A's, including their last four at home, but the rest of their games are against the Astros (3) and the two other NL West teams still fighting for that final spot. The Twins' intradivision rivals in Kansas City have a far softer schedule than those NL West teams, but the Royals also sit four games back after dropping two out of three to the White Sox this week. Everyone else is further behind.

Of course, waiting for the Twins in the Wild Card Game they're fighting so hard to reach will be the Yankees, the team that eliminated Minnesota from the Division Series in four of their past five playoff appearances. But that's both ancient history (the last of those series was in 2010) and as much an opportunity for revenge as angst for Minnesota and its fans. We'll get a preview of that matchup next week when the Twins travel to the Bronx for a three-game set that few had circled as a potential Wild Card preview when the season began.

***

Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.