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Twins Series Preview: A surprising contender for the division

Those pesky Twins won't go away quite yet.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals and Twins face off today with Minnesota still surprisingly the closest contender to the first-place Royals. The Twins had an outstanding May, and despite a disappointing 11-17 month of June, have continued to stick around with a 41-37 record, 4 1/2 games back of the Royals.

The Twins are just 16-22 on the road, and have dropped six of nine against the Royals this year, including two of three at the K. Minnesota has dropped seven of their last eleven, mostly against teams with losing records. They have recently infused some youth into their lineup, calling up two of the best prospects in baseball - outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano. Buxton made his debut a few weeks ago but is out for a month with a thumb injury. Sano is expected to make his Major League debut tonight after tearing up AA.

The Twins are ninth in the league in runs scored at 4.22 per game, slightly less than the Royals. They have the third-worst on base percentage and have hit the third-fewest home runs. They are third in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .286/.355/.442 in those situations.

Right fielder Torii Hunter has hit well since his tirade that got him ejected against the Royals a few weeks ago. He has hits in twelve of his last fifteen starts, and has hit four home runs over that stretch. Joe Mauer is a shell of his former self, and has the eighth-worst fWAR in the American League. He has a reverse split this year, showing slightly more power against lefties. Brian Dozier is enjoying an All-Star season, and already has the third-most home runs by a Twins second baseman in a season behind only - Brian Dozier in 2013 and 2014.

*-numbers for AA Chattanooga

The Twins continue to employ a "pitch-to-contact" philosophy. Of the eight lowest strikeout rates among qualified starters in the American League, three are Twins pitchers. Mizzou grad Kyle Gibson has handled the Royals well in his career with a 2.68 ERA in six starts, although the Royals have beaten him twice this year already. Despite his 6'6'' frame, Gibson does not rack up strikeouts, instead relying on a plus change-up to pitch-to-contact and induce ground balls. Tommy Milone is a soft-tossing lefty who gave up just two hits over six shutout innings his last time out against the Brewers.

Wichita native Mike Pelfrey has bounced back from a disastrous 2014 season to be a decent mid-rotation starter. Pelfrey has the lowest strikeout rate in the league, but also has the third-highest ground ball rate. Former Royals starting pitcher Ervin Santana is expected to make his season debut on Sunday after missing the first 80 games due to a suspension for using stanozolol.

#-2014 numbers with the Atlanta Braves

The Twins have the third-highest bullpen ERA at 3.92 with the worst strikeout rate at just under six-per-nine innings. Closer Glen Perkins is a perfect 25-for-25 in save opportunities with a 1.39 ERA. Right-hander Blaine Boyer has a 2.48 ERA despite striking out just 4.2 hitters-per-nine innings. Lefty reliever Brian Duensing has struggled against lefty hitters, with a line of .344/.447/.438 against him. Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham, who sent Alex Rios to the disabled list earlier this year with an errant pitch, has a 2.92 ERA but a 4.76 FIP and has allowed six unearned runs.

The Twins have some promising young players and look to be a franchise back on the upswing. They have made some strides this year, but have also been a bit lucky, and a tough June took them out of first place. It is up to the Royals this weekend to show the Twins it is not their time quite yet, by putting some more distance between the two teams.