MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota Twins general manager Andy MacPhail called Terry Crowley last November to talk with the former Baltimore Oriole about becoming Minnesota's hitting coach, Crowley was slightly skeptical.
He was content in his job as the roving hitting instructor for the Boston Red Sox and was unsure about the prospect of joining a Twins team that had finished last in the American League West standings and 12th in the league in hitting.
"But then they told me the pitching staff would be very much improved," Crowley says. "When I heard that, I lit up. I figured if I could help the hitting, and the pitching was as good as they said, we would have a pretty darn good club. I figured maybe we could surprise some people."
Surprise? To call the Twins a surprise team would be like calling winters in the Twin Cities a little chilly. The Twins come to Baltimore for a three-game series with Orioles as owners of the major leagues' best record: 74-49. Their six-game lead is their largest of the season.
Barring a collapse over the final six weeks, the Twins will become the first team in major-league history to finish first (in its division or league) the season after finishing last, something the 1989 Orioles came close to doing and something the Atlanta Braves have a shot at this year.
"No one's ever done it, but I think we will," infielder Al Newman said. Added designated hitter Chili Davis: "I know we will."
The Twins moved 25 games over .500 yesterday, their best level of the season, with a 5-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners in 10 innings, Minnesota's fourth come-from-behind victory in the past week. They have owned at least a share of first place since June 16 and have had sole possession of the lead for 43 consecutive days.
Minnesota took control of the division with a club-record 15-game winning streak (the longest in the majors in 14 years) that ended in Baltimore on June 17. But even without their 22-2 run that preceded the All-Star break, the Twins have played above .500 baseball. They have not lost more than three games in a row since late June or more than four in a row since the season's second week.
Yesterday's victory was their sixth in the past seven games, and the 74th victory of the season matched their 1990 total.
"It's not having the big winning streaks that wins the division," said center fielder and team batting leader Kirby Puckett (.330). "It's just being consistent and avoiding the long losing streaks, just winning two of three."
The 1991 Twins are nothing like the 1987 club that took advantage of a weak division to make the playoffs with 85 wins, then rode a dome-field advantage through the postseason.
Unlike the 1987 Twins, the 1991 Twins have starting pitching depth (Jack Morris, 23-year-old Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani have combined for 42 victories) and a lineup without holes. The two teams do have some similarities: Kent Hrbek, Greg Gagne, Gene Larkin, Randy Bush, Newman, Dan Gladden, Puckett, a tight defense and manager Tom Kelly's even-keeled approach.
Despite finishing 74-88 and 29 games behind the A's last season, there were signs the Twins would be improved in 1991.
MacPhail plugged the most obvious holes. Steve Bedrosian was acquired for a pitching prospect to give the bullpen depth and experience. Mike Pagliarulo was signed to replace Gary Gaetti at third base after the latter signed with the California Angels. Davis was signed to replace Gaetti's run production.
Davis, the Twins' most valuable player during the first half, has a career-high 26 homers, 14 more than he hit for the Angels last season when he was 20 pounds heavier and slowed by a back problem.
Erickson stunned the league in the first half by winning 12 straight decisions and lowering his ERA to 1.39. Then he experienced soreness in his elbow. The 23-year-old right-hander spent the first two weeks of July on the disabled list and has a 7.40 ERA in his past nine starts. He has allowed five or more runs in six of those games.
Erickson has said for the past two weeks that his elbow is fine -- he is irritated whenever the subject is broached -- but the Twins may not even need a healthy Erickson down the stretch.
Tonight, they begin a stretch of 14 games against the bottom three teams in the AL East: the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and the Orioles. The Twins are 44-20 vs. the East and 19-3 vs. those three teams.
"I'm still not sure we're at the point where we should be using phrases like 'pennant race,' " Kelly said. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. What I've said is I want us to be in position to make a run on Sept. 1. If we can be in position then, I'll take our chances."