May 6, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) reacts in the fourth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As May winds down and the calendar gets set to flip to June, the Minnesota Twins stand atop the American League Central. The lead is just two games and the division hasn't exactly turned out to be the cream of the crop but it's a lead nonetheless.

Minnesota has climbed to the top and held things down behind its starting pitching. A sluggish start for the offense (23 games of three runs or less) hasn't been ideal but a willingness by manager Rocco Baldelli to let the starting rotation work deeper into games has paid off.

Entering play Friday with Toronto coming to town, the Twins lead all of MLB in starts of five or more innings while yielding two or fewer runs. Minnesota has had 32 such games this year. Interestingly enough, the Blue Jays are second on the list with 31.

One issue last season with the Twins was the reluctance to let starters go deep into a game. The bullpen was taxed, pitching the third-most innings in baseball at 654 1/3 frames. As a result, the bullpen's ERA finished in the middle of the pack at No. 16.

This year the formula has changed and the solutions have been discovered.

Minnesota's team ERA last year finished No. 19 in baseball. This year it is No. 2, trailing only Houston. Stellar pitching from Joe Ryan and Sonny Gray to jumpstart games have played a large factor.

Only the Washington Nationals had fewer quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer runs allowed) registered in 2022 (30) than the Twins (35). That number has skyrocketed to 24 this year for Minnesota's staff and it's still May.

Ryan has eight quality starts in 10 nods on the bump with Pablo Lopez right behind him with six. The trio of Gray, Bailey Ober and Louie Varland all have three. For a cherry on top of the sundae, Gray leads MLB with a 1.82 ERA in 54 1/3 innings.

The domino effect has lead to a more refreshed set of relievers which have the ninth-lowest ERA among bullpens at 3.71.

Gray was not shy in the offseason speaking on the topic of short starts in 2022.

"I don't think we're interested in going four innings and being happy," Gray said in March. "I feel like we had a group last year that was pretty content with going four innings, (where) four innings and five innings is considered a good start."

That hasn't been the case this year with Baldelli being more willing to let the starting staff see an opposing lineup a third time around.

Gray lobbying for a heavier workload may or may not have played a factor but planting the seed and disagreeing with a short leash didn't hurt.

"I disagreed with that then," he said. "I disagree with that now, but I feel like just the guys we have aren't content with it either, which is what you want as a rotation."

Gray should be smiling now being part of a rotation that's averaging 5.6 innings per start, tied for fourth in baseball. Last year, that number was 4.8 innings, ahead of only Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay (hello "openers").

Baldelli and the rest of the braintrust are investing in the rotation a lot more to get the job done. So far, so good.

Other notes:

-- Louie Varland has 52 strikeouts over his first 10 starts. Since the team came to Minnesota in 1961, that number for Varland ranks fifth highest.

Statistics courtesy of Sportradar and baseball reference

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