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Too much for Twins to overcome?
At a time when it's tempting to play “Taps” for the 2011 Twins, a drum roll, please, for some of the comebacks in the franchise's recent history:
2006: 11 1/2 games back on June 7, the Twins pass three teams to win the AL Central, with first baseman Justin Morneau winning the league MVP award.
2008: Six games back on June 10, the Twins rally to force a one-game playoff for the division title, losing to the White Sox, 1-0.
2009: 6 1/2 games back on Aug. 20, the Twins rally to force another one-game playoff, defeating the Tigers and locking up the MVP for catcher Joe Mauer.
Compelling stuff, powerful evidence that the Twins are not about to disappear, even though they trail the Indians by 9 1/2 games as they visit Fenway Park this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 1:10 p.m. ET).
Yet, the challenge this time is significantly greater.
“They're a shell of what they once were,” says a scout who recently saw the Twins. “I don't know if they can get it together before it's too late. What worries me is that I don't see the enthusiasm that I've seen from this team in the past.”
The Twins, champions of the AL Central six of the past nine seasons, face troubling questions in every aspect of their club: offense, defense, rotation, bullpen.
And even when the team gets healthy — if the team gets healthy — there is no guarantee all the pieces will fit.
What will Mauer be when he returns? Can Morneau and former closer Joe Nathan regain their previous forms? Will Nishioka or Trevor Plouffe prove a competent shortstop now that the Alexi Casilla experiment is mercifully over?
In each case, no one really knows. Mauer and Nishioka are still “a few weeks away,” according to general manager Bill Smith. In the meantime, the Twins continue to scramble. Their minus-62 run differential is by far the worst in the majors. And on Friday, they will promote catcher Rene Rivera, who last appeared in the majors with the Mariners in 2006.
“We've already called up 10 different players from our Rochester club,” Smith said. “That's a tough way to start the season. We've started to play a little better. We've got a lot of season left. There's no panic.”
One of the injured Twins will return this weekend: right-hander Kevin Slowey, who will pitch out of the bullpen and serve as insurance for the rotation. Except for Francisco Liriano's no-hitter, the rotation has been a huge disappointment, ranking next to last in the AL in ERA. The offense, last in the majors in runs, has been even worse.
Incredibly, the Twins are scoring less than the Mariners, less than the Pirates, less than even the pitiful Padres. Their 13 home runs also are a major league low — and only two more than Alfonso Soriano has hit for the Cubs.
Mauer, Morneau, Young and Michael Cuddyer all missed time with injuries in March, effectively extending their springs into April. Those four, plus Thome, combined for 87 homers last season. So far, with the season nearly one-fifth complete, they've combined for six — three by Cuddyer.
Morneau, who did not play after July 7 last season due to concussion syndrome, is batting .207 with a .584 OPS and one home run in 87 at-bats. But Smith takes a big-picture view, saying he's thrilled Morneau is healthy and that the hits will come.
Certainly, poor luck is part of Morneau's problem — his .227 batting average on balls in play is bound to get better. Still, the scout who recently saw the Twins is concerned about Morneau, saying, “It looks like he is very unsure of himself. Obviously, he's lost confidence.”
Morneau turns 30 on May 15. Mauer recently turned 28. How long Mauer will remain at catcher is an open question; he is coming off surgery on his left knee and has a history of leg and back problems. But Smith is emphatic that Mauer will be the same player again.
“He will get back to being Joe Mauer,” Smith says. “We're going to take our time, get his strength built back up, get him ready to play. But I have every confidence he will be the impact player he has been for the last five to six years. Nobody questioned any of that stuff when he won three batting titles and an MVP.”
Fair enough. Mauer merits the benefit of the doubt, especially from the franchise that signed him through 2018. The scary part is, the Twins still might be in trouble this season even if Mauer, Morneau and the rest of the offense eventually click.
Liriano, the only member of the rotation with dominant stuff, had a 9.13 ERA before his no-hitter. Nathan, coming back from Tommy John surgery, could not hold down the closer's role. Several other relievers lack experience, and the Twins rank 24th in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs.
“We have not done a lot of little things that have been a staple of Twins baseball over the last two decades,” Smith says. “We've got to get that back. It's an edge that we have to have if we're going to be successful.”
They're the Twins. They always rally.
This time, though, there just might be too much for them to overcome.