We're 1/4 of the way through the season. This 13-27 stretch is the worst since the 2001 Twins came out of the All-Star break 11-30. But don't write them off just yet. There was some very encouraging news coming out of Tuesday night's recap. First, feast your eyes on this beauty:
7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
For the 1st time all season, Francisco Liriano pitched like he's supposed to. I know the Mariners aren't much better at hitting than the Twins are. But opposing lineups haven't been hitting Liriano too much lately. They've been walking. In this game, Liriano showed both improved control (17/26 batters faced started with strike 1) and a killer instinct once he got them to 2 strikes. Where has that been all season? Well... look at his stats by catcher:
Mauer - 7.71 ERA, 7.7 BB/9, 7.7 K/9
Rivera - 1.29 ERA, 1.3 BB/9, 11.6 K/9
Butera - 6.84 ERA, 6.5 BB/9, 4.4 K/9
Small sample sizes all. Liriano has been horribly erratic, and he'll have to limit the walks if he's going to succeed going forward. But it appears that Butera isn't calling the game in such a way that would elicit swinging strikes. Looking at the staff as a whole:
Mauer - 4.04 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 3.7 BB/9
Rivera - 3.45 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
Holm - 5.44 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9
Butera - 5.58 ERA, 5.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
When Butera is behind the plate, all Twins pitchers have a terrible K/BB ratio. I actually find that very encouraging. As terrificly as Liriano and Nick Blackburn have done with Rivera behind the plate, I would think Gardy would want to keep that chemistry going. Since Butera and Rivera are both hitting horribly, why not go with the guy who's getting good pitching performances? And Joe Mauer will return some day. When he does, the K/BB ratio will improve, making the pitching better even as the catching spot is transformed from an automatic out into a .400+ OBP. Maybe seeing Butera outplayed by a replacement-level journeyman will help Bill Smith realize how badly the Twins need a proper backup C, and he'll do what it takes to get one.
Jason Repko started his rehab assignment yesterday, and went 2 for 5 with a HR. He will soon take the place of Ben Revere and his .167 OBP. Jim Thome is swinging the bat in Florida and should return within a week. Soon he'll be the one pinch-hitting for Rivera and Butera and Casilla. Delmon Young was rushed back too soon (evidently, a dozen or so PA against Rookie-ball pitching doesn't prepare you to face the likes of Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Michael Pineda), but he'll find his stroke soon enough. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is running in Florida and within a couple of weeks will be sending Matt Tolbert's and Casilla's sub-.250 OBPs out of the starting lineup. Danny Valencia is playing very well, just having unsustainably bad luck. Michael Cuddyer doesn't seem like he's doing much, but look at this:
Cuddyer 2008-2010: .269/.337/.451
Cuddyer since 4/12/11: .298/.360/.439
Once he made up the 30 or so PA he missed in spring training, he's played as well as we had any right to expect. Though his power has been lacking, and he hasn't done much with RISP, he's far from a liability.
This lineup is destined to score more runs, which brings me to the best news of all:
The Twins have been held to 3 or fewer runs in 28 of 40 games, and are 4-24 in those games.
Isn't that fantastic? That means the Twins are 9-3 in games in which they score at least 4 runs. (And 2 of the 3 losses were blown saves!) A .750 winning percentage can turn this season around very quickly, especially with the schedule lightening up a bit. They just have to score one more R/G. And they will.
Every team goes the rough spells. Look at the way the Rays and Red Sox started the season. Look at the way the Yankees are playing now. But every team has periods of prolonged success, as well. The 2001 team that was bad enough to go 11-30 was also good enough to start the season 29-12. A surge like that would get the Twins back over .500 by the mid-point of the season. And the '01 Twins weren't the only ones to have hot streaks:
2002: Beginning on June 30th, the Twins went 24-7.
2003: Coming out of the break, the Twins went 45-20 to take the division title.
2004: From August 15th to September 16th, the Twins went 23-7 to take the division title.
2005: They began the season 35-22 before fading to just over .500 when it was all over.
2006: Beginning June 8th, the Twins finished the season 71-33 to steal the division on the last day.
2007: From May 22nd through July 15th, the Twins had a 29-19 run.
2008: From June 16th to the end of August, they went 45-25.
2009: The Twins went 17-4 over the final 3 weeks to steal the division in game 163.
2010: Starting one game after the ASB, they went 46-17 to wrap up the division with 10 games yet to play.
Every Twins team for a decade has had a period of sustained winning. Any of those periods, applied to the 2011 team, would turn the season around.
The good times are coming. Will it be too late when they arrive?