Sunday, August 23, 2009

Signs of Life

When they sank back to a season-low 6 games under .500 on Monday, I realized that the only thing that could save the 2009 Twins was a winning streak. The prospects of that seemed grim when they fell behind 5-0 after 3 innings on the road against the wild card contending Rangers. But then the Twins' offense, which has been so prolific in August, rose up in support of the flailing pitching staff, scoring 4 runs in the 6th to tie the game, then 3 more in the 7th to win it. This rally was magical not just because it included 4 RBI and 6 TB worth of heroics from Delmon Young, but because it happened without the help of Justin Morneau, who has missed most of the week with an inner ear infection, and Jason Kubel, who left the game after fouling a pitch off his knee in his first AB. For those reasons, I thought that rally could prove to be a turning point for the Twins.

We won't know for another 6 weeks whether that will be the case, but the Twins are sitting in about the best spot we could have hoped following a 7-game road trip. Their 5-2 record nullifies three of their recent series losses, and the sweep of the Royals brings their record vs. the worst team in the AL to a respectable 4-2 this month. Most importantly, they've been able to gain ground on the Tigers and White Sox, perhaps finding themselves as few as 4.5 games back in the standings by the end of the day.

The pitching hasn't particularly improved, so I can't attribute this 5-1 stretch to that. The Royals bumbling defense certainly helped. But mostly, I'm going to credit the improved play of the bottom of the lineup. With Morneau out, Cuddyer has had to play first base, meaning Carlos Gomez and Young have been in the lineup for the last 6 games. Gomez has hit .348 with 5 R, Young has slugged .545 with 10 RBI over the last 8 games, and Alexi Casilla, finally given some playing time at the expense of Nick Punto, went 5 for 11 with 4 R over the weekend in KC. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer have kept on producing, so to have some power and speed reaching at the bottom of the order makes this a pretty complete lineup, one that can overcome some severe shortfalls from the pitchers.

Ultimately, the pitchers will have to step up to at least average in order for the Twins to make a serious run. To that end, it was comforting to see solid performances from Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Carl Pavano this weekend. Yes, they were just facing the Royals' terrible lineup, but I'll take good starting pitching anywhere I can get it this month. After next week, I look forward to an onslaught of arms from Rochester coming up to bolster the big league bullpen.

The Twins have a big 9-game home stand coming up. They've got to go at least 6-3, including winning the series vs. the White Sox. This is the time for the Dome field advantage to materialize one last time.

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