MINNEAPOLIS -- Maybe it's best for the Minnesota Twins not to think about why they are atop the American League West, status hardly anyone predicted for them when the baseball season opened 2 1/2 months ago.
Manager Tom Kelly understands the fleeting nature of excellence, which is why he answers questions about victory and defeat by noting with maddening frequency that "tomorrow is another day." Why take credit for what might not be there next week? Why approach success in terms more abstract than hitting, fielding and pitching better than opponents?
"You should never count your marbles too quickly," explained coach Rick Renick. "Not until the final day of the season, or until you're ahead by five games with four left to go."
Still, there have to be reasons for what's happened so far: A 39-29 record that's 136 percentage points better than the Twins' 71-91 finish in 1986, when former Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller managed them until his September firing. The Twins have won 12 of their last 15 games and, despite a reputation in recent seasons for streakiness, haven't lost more than three straight games during the first 68.
"I think that any time you go from being 20 games under .500 to having your team in first place, there's more than one reason," said Andy MacPhail, baseball's youngest general manager at age 34. "But if you pin me down to one reason, I'd have to give a lot of credit to Kelly. Our guys want to play for Tom. The way he runs the game, we've probably manufactured more runs than we did all last year. We don't have to rely on the big inning or the home run, even though we've won our share of games that way."
"I just write the names in the lineup and try not to screw it up," said Kelly, baseball's youngest manager at 36. "I don't have too much to do with this. You pitch well, you have a chance. You catch the ball in the field like you're supposed to, and that helps. We've been much more consistent than in the past."
The Twins, though, haven't been caught up in a youth movement. In the last two weeks, MacPhail has added three veteran players: pitcher Joe Niekro, 42, acquired from the Yankees for catcher Mark Salas; catcher Sal Butera, 34, and reliever Terry Forster, 35, signed to a Class AAA contract to pitch his way into relative shape.
Between seasons, the Twins made other moves that paid off:They acquired reliever Jeff Reardon from the Montreal Expos for pitcher Neal Heaton, catcher Jeff Reed and two minor leaguers. Despite late-inning home runs that have inflated his ERA to 6.11, Reardon is second in the American League with 14 saves. Left fielder Dan Gladden came from San Francisco for three Class A pitchers. Gladden (.261 average, 11 stolen bases) replaced Mickey Hatcher on the roster and gave the Twins a leadoff batter. Hatcher was released even though the Twins owed more than $700,000 on a long-term contract. Juan Berenguer was signed when the Giants released him. He's relieved in 15 games, started five and has a 5-0 record, two saves and a 3.02 ERA, not to mention 77 strikeouts and 27 walks in 65 2/3 innings. The Twins signed him for $152,500, less than half his 1986 salary.
The plan has been to surround a nucleus of players with unquestioned talent. Center fielder Kirby Puckett (.335, 13 home runs) leads the Twins with 44 RBI and is more comfortable batting third than first as he did last season. Gary Gaetti (.267, 14 HR, 40 RBI) is the reigning Gold Glove at third base. Right fielder Tom Brunansky (.274, 15 HR, 39 RBI) and first baseman Kent Hrbek (.275, 16 HR, 41 RBI) have recovered from slow starts; starters Frank Viola (6-5, 3.45 ERA and Bert Blyleven (5-6, 4.41 ERA) appear to be doing the same.
"We've made some good moves already, and I think the front office is showing the players that they're committed to victory," said veteran starter Mike Smithson. "Sometimes in the past it didn't seem like they were trying."
"We have strength on the bench now," said Hrbek. "At the beginning of the season, it was Puckett this and Puckett that and nobody else was doing much of anything. That didn't last. But we've won without me in the lineup and without Puckett and without Gaetti in there. It's not like there are nine guys getting beat to death out there. It's a lot easier coming to the ball park.
"The thing is, I get more upset when we lose now because every game is important."
MacPhail, son of former American League president Lee MacPhail, took control of the baseball operation in November when former president Howard Fox was asked to retire. He convinced Ralph Houk, who managed the Yankees when Lee MacPhail was their general manager over 25 years ago, to become a consultant. He hired Bob Gebhard, who was Montreal's minor-league director, to be player personnel director.
"When we started playing pretty well against the Eastern Division teams, that's when I think we went from being competitive to being a contender," MacPhail said. "The players earned that by the way they played and, with Joe Niekro, I think we've been elevated to being one of the front-runners.
"There are some other teams who can say the same thing -- California, Kansas City and maybe Oakland. One thing that concerns me is right after the all-star break when we play the Yankees and Toronto for 11 straight games. Maybe we'll be able to call ourselves the favorite soon after the break if things stay in place."