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Healthy Twins relish two wins in Bronx
For one night, it was almost as if the Twins were back. Better than back, actually, considering they had not won two games in a season at Yankee Stadium since 2001 — Tom Kelly's final season as manager.
Grim realities likely await this club, but its 6-5 triumph over the Yankees on Wednesday night (giving the Twins two of three games in the series) was downright moving — and not simply because Minnesota had been 3-8 on the season or that manager Ron Gardenhire had been 7-33 in the Bronx.
First baseman Justin Morneau, finally healthy, hit two home runs. Right-hander Jason Marquis, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., pitched five gritty innings to win his Twins debut — a debut delayed by a life-threatening injury his daughter Reese, 7, suffered last month.
Reese is recovering quite well after lacerating her liver in a bike accident, and she was at Yankee Stadium along with the rest of Marquis family and about 50 other friends and relatives.
What they witnessed was a game typical of many the Twins will play this season — high-scoring on both sides.
The Twins are healthier than they were in 2011, when almost all of their important players spent time on the DL and the team finished with 99 losses, the franchise's most since 1982. But not even the returns of two former MVPs, Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer, could solve this team's problems overnight.
I want to believe the Twins will quickly reclaim their status as a model franchise, especially now that the universally respected Terry Ryan is back as general manager. But I look at their roster — particularly their pitching staff — and find it difficult to envision a rapid turnaround.
Some of the team's early difficulties are attributable to its schedule — the Twins are in the middle of consecutive series against the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. The club also might need time to gel after starting the season with 14 players who were not on last year's Opening Day roster.
Still, one issue hasn't changed since the Twins were the pre-eminent franchise in the AL Central, winning the division six times in a nine-year span from 2002-10:
They lack dominant starting pitchers.
To make matters worse, they currently lack dominant relievers, too.
The idea that Morneau, Mauer and center fielder Denard Span would return to health and restore the franchise to glory ... it's just not going to happen that easily.
For one thing, Gardenhire said it's too early to proclaim that Morneau is back — he has played first base only once, serving mostly as a DH.
Morneau, too, was cautious in his optimism.
"It's been kind of a long road," he said. "Obviously, it's not the end. Hopefully, it's just the start to getting back to being the hitter I used to be."
Gardenhire said he is encouraged that Morneau is again playing with a smile, enjoying the game. If Morneau is healthy, he will hit. Heck, the entire team should hit, even after losing outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel to free agency. The new left fielder, Josh Willingham, is the reigning AL Player of the Week and owner of a 12-game hitting streak to start the season.
Alas, the pitching holds less promise.
Right-hander Scott Baker is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Left-hander Francisco Liriano, the one Twins starter with ace-like stuff, again is experiencing a crisis of confidence. Veteran right-handers Marquis and Carl Pavano are game, but hardly overpowering.
The Twins got good news Wednesday on righty Nick Blackburn, who will miss only one start after suffering a cramp in his pitching shoulder. They're also encouraged by righty Liam Hendriks, who held the Rangers to one run in six innings in his season debut.
But seriously, which of the starters can be trusted to produce a quality outing every fifth day?
As Ryan points out, the Twins have other starting candidates in the bullpen — lefty Brian Duensing, righty Matt Maloney and righty Anthony Swarzak if the Twins bump him from the rotation for Marquis. But as always with the Twins, the group consists mainly of strike-throwers, not strikeout artists.
The same is mostly true in the ‘pen, where the Twins lost a low-risk gamble on oft-injured hard thrower Joel Zumaya, who tore an elbow ligament early in spring training. The Twins got four strong innings out of Duensing, righty Jared Burton and right-handed closer Matt Capps on Wednesday night. But the team’s hitters face all these opposing relievers throwing 95 mph, and wonder why their own club lacks the same kind of juice.
The Twins crumbled last season in part because their pitchers ranked last in the AL in strikeout rate and the team was last in the league in defensive efficiency — a lethal combination. Winning with a contact staff is not impossible, particularly at spacious Target Field. But to make it happen, the Twins will need to play terrific defense, which is unlikely.
Oh, the team will field better than it did last season, when it ranked last in the majors in defensive efficiency. But shortstop Jamey Carroll, 38, is likely to be below average. Ditto for Willingham in left and Danny Valencia at third. Triple-A infielder Brian Dozier, the team's minor league Player of the Year last season, eventually could figure into the equation.
Outwardly, at least, the Twins express optimism. Gardenhire says, "There's promise here."
Morneau adds, "I think we're a better team than people think, a better team than we've shown so far."
Ryan, who resigned as GM at the end of the 2007 season, only to return last Nov. 7 as the replacement for Bill Smith, also is adamant the Twins will be fine.
"We aren't broke," Ryan said. "We had a horrendous year last year. That's been well documented. But we've all moved on."
For one night, it was easy to believe him.
The Twins will need more such nights to prove they're back.
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