MINNEAPOLIS — The Twin Cities are just three days removed from hosting one of sport’s greatest spectacles, yet only shadows remain from the 85th Major League Baseball All-Star Game’s scenic backdrop.
The silhouette of Minnesota still graced Target Field’s outfield grass Friday, but the letters "ASG" were no more. The bright, lime-green line in the sidewalk directing visitors between the ballpark and the Minneapolis Convention Center had begun to fade. And Brian Dozier and the rest of the Twins walked into a barren stadium that 72 hours prior had resembled a sardine can of humanity.
"The last time I was here," said Dozier, who participated in Monday’s Home Run Derby, "you could barely walk around the locker room or on the field."
No more Thunderbird flyovers. No more Idina Menzel. No more Derek Jeter send-offs in front of more than 11 million TV viewers.
The aesthetics have gone back to normal. But the Twins can’t.
Heading into an All-Star break they’ll remember around here for ages to come, Minnesota was back in an all-too-familiar spot — the American League Central Division cellar. After a 6-2 loss Friday night against the Rays, they’ve fallen even further behind.
So to call the 10-game homestand that commenced in front of 31,058 fans crucial seems an understatement.
"We know where we’re at," said manager Ron Gardenhire, whose name turned up in offseason firing rumors before he signed a two-year contract extension. "We’re chasing. I think it’s pretty easy to see. We’ll go one way or another."
With Kyle Gibson continuing his sporadic sophomore campaign and little run support to aid him, Minnesota couldn’t ride the momentum of a 5-2 road trip to close out the campaign’s first half. Gibson (8-8, 4.19) gave up six earned runs on nine hits, his outing serving as a microcosm of his season.
He threw just 88 pitches, 52 strikes. In the first, fourth and sixth innings, he retired the Rays in order.
But in between, he gave up a bases-clearing triple to Evan Longoria in the third and a two-run homer to Ben Zobrist in the fifth.
Efficient, then inadequate. The same goes for the 26-year-old’s first year as a full-time rotation man; since claiming victory in his first three starts this season, Gibson is now 1-5 in outings following a win.
"He’s trying to learn to pitch without your best stuff all the time," Gardenhire said.
Said Gibson: "I think there’s definitely room for improvement there. That’s the hard part about pitching, finding ways to work through six, seven innings when you don’t have your best stuff. I think there’s times where I’ve done that, and tonight would’ve been one of those nights where I would’ve done well but got beat in a couple situations where there were good hitters up there and I left the ball in the middle."
He’s part of a disturbing set of trends for a rotation that ranks 29th in the majors in opponent batting average and 28th in ERA.
The starting arms haven’t always had much help, though, and Friday night wasn’t much of an exception.
Save for Trevor Plouffe’s two-run shot in the third — his seventh homer of the season — Minnesota couldn’t muster much by way of run support. The Twins went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base, including three when Danny Santana — fresh off the disabled list and a rehab stint in Fort Myers — grounded out to third with the based loaded to end the sixth.
"It does play into it; you’ve got to take the pressure off (our pitchers) sometimes," Gardenhire said. "But still, you have a job to do as a starting pitcher, and that’s to keep the guys in the game and try to stay away from big innings."
It came against a team in similar straits. Till this season, Tampa Bay (45-53) hadn’t won fewer than 34 games before the All-Star break since 2007.
But the Rays’ 20-11 mark since June 11 is the majors’ fourth-best during that time span. The last time Minnesota concocted a similar streak, it was on its way to a second consecutive playoff appearance in 2010.
It’d take a mammoth run to recapture such a scenario.
And in talking to Dozier and his teammates, they’re well aware of it.
"I’m glad to hear they are saying that," said Ryan, who traded for Kendrys Morales earlier this season in a "win-now" move that seemed to energize the clubhouse. "That’s good. They like what we’ve got, they like some of the talent, they think we’re heading the right direction.
"But it’s not like it’s the front office and the players (are separate). We’re in this together. We want to do what’s right. We all would like to be better and we’d all like to have a better record, we’d all like to be closer to playoff teams.
"We’re not right now. We need to be better."
Otherwise, Ryan will be forced to sell, rather than buy, when the non-waiver trade deadline comes along July 31. He admitted as much Friday.
"It isn’t gonna make a season, but it’s gonna affect the trade deadline," Ryan said. "We can’t afford to keep dropping back, you know? You start getting to this point in the season, there’s a lot of ground to be made up."
Vavra on the mend: Usual third-base coach Joe Vavra spent Friday night’s game in the dugout on account of a bad hip. Scott Ullger manned the third-base coach’s box and will do so until Vavra can move around better, according to a Twins spokesman.