1st in AL Central by 2.5 games
The scoring remained sluggish, but the pitching improved enough to cancel out the 3rd split. The Twins allowed a dozen fewer earned runs in recent games, no doubt aided by facing the relatively weak offenses of Seattle, Oakland and KC. The net result of a 16-16 record over the last 32 games (and 18-18 over the last 36) coincides almost perfectly with the loss of JJ Hardy at the end of the 27th game of the season. Orlando Hudson's collision with Denard Span at the end of the final game of the Texas series left the Twins without his services for 14 of the 16 games of this split. One or both of those important offseason acquisitions has been absent for the past 30-some games. For me, that explains the dip in scoring and winning percentage from the first 1/5th of the schedule.
3B was an acknowledged weakness in the Twins' lineup this season, but it was supposed to be the only weakness. Losing Hudson and Hardy has forced Matt Tolbert and Brendan Harris into the lineup alongside Nick Punto, along with rookies Trevor Plouffe and Danny Valencia. Of that group, only Valencia has hit with any consistency, and those hits have all been singles. What's worse, Gardy has persistently played one of those guys in the #2 spot, sticking an easy out between Span and Joe Mauer. Add Span's horrendous west coast trip into the mix (2 for 30 with 1 BB) and it's actually remarkable that the Twins were able to come home from that trip with 3 wins.
One of the biggest reasons they did was the play of Delmon Young. He hit .368/.383/.649 with 4 2B, 4 HR and 19 RBI. That's a crapload of RBI for just 16 games, but that number doesn't even tell the story of how timely his hitting was. Last time, I predicted that the Twins would have at least 5 bases loaded hits in this split. They had exactly 5, and Young had 3 of them. He also delivered the game-winning hit late in 2 of the Twins' 1-run wins over this stretch.
The other major reason the Twins were on the happy side of .500 in this split is Francisco Liriano. All 3 of his GS during this stretch ended as 1-run Twins wins, so had he been any less awesome, the record would not have been as good. I should also mention Jon Rauch, who converted all 5 of his save opportunities while allowing just 1 ER in 6 IP on 7 H, 0 BB and 6 K.
As for the defense, it was not their finest hour. Through the first 48 games, they had accumulated just 10 E and 4 unearned R. But in the last 16 games, they committed 11 E and 7 unearned R, culminating in the disastrous 3 E, 3 unearned R inning that ultimately cost them a series sweep of the Royals. Most of those E were committed by middle IF who were not Hardy or Hudson.
Hudson could be back as early as Friday. His health will be one of the keys to the rest of the season. With him in the lineup, the Twins should always be able to pencil in at least 6 above average bats. With the pitching going strong, and the defense still excellent overall, that combination should be enough to enable the Twins to pull away from the Tigers over the long haul.
Bold prediction: At least one of Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Jesse Crain, Alex Burnett or Ron Mahay will no longer be on the roster at the midpoint of the season.