First off, pardon the over-used rhyme. After finding themselves 20 games under .500 at one point this season, the Minnesota Twins stand on June 22 a mere 6.5 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, who have won only seven games this month. How have the Twins come this close after having to play a large amount of games without their two superstars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau?
The Twins have one hitter batting over .300 (Jason Kubel, who happens to be on the DL at the moment) and yet scoring has been far from an issue for the team this month. Fan favorite Michael Cuddyer has carried the offense with his 10 homeruns while his counterparts have been riding the pine with various medical ailments. However, Cuddyer has certainly not done it all on his own. Relatively unknown players such as Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes and Drew Butera have all produced hits in important moments this season. In fact, Butera, the usual backup catcher for Mauer, hit the game-winning single a few games ago against the hapless San Diego Padres. Injuries to the aforementioned Mauer, Morneau, Kubel plus slugger Jim Thome and speedy outfielder Denard Span have led to several opportunities for players that would normally be spending their time in Rochester or New Britain. 2007 first round pick Ben Revere has filled in admirably for Span in the lead-off role, stealing bases and scoring runs regularly. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Revere will stick in the outfield once Span returns from the DL. Another hitter that has caught my eye is middle infielder Alexi Casilla. Casilla, who struggled in 2009 and played less than half of last season, has enjoyed a fine comeback season in the number two spot in the lineup while the batter who was supposed to be in that role, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, was gone with a broken fibula. Nishioka has come back from his injury but is hitting towards the bottom of the lineup. Third baseman Danny Valencia has showed some power this season, leading the team in RBIs, but is still hitting an abysmal .221. Regardless, he has been impressive for the Twins as an everyday third basemen, something the Twins have lacked since the days of Corey Koskie. Outfielder Delmon Young has hit in nine of his last 10 games and is starting to heat up after having his breakout season in 2010. Although stars Mauer and Morneau have had their troubles in the batter's box so far this year, I expect them to find their strokes as the team goes into July and August. There is no reason for anything but optimism as injured Twins continue to gradually show up in the lineup.
The Twins hitters may be getting a lot of the attention as the team continues it's climb up the division, but it should be the pitching that gets the credit. The staff has allowed more than five runs in a game once in the month of June and has given up a grand total of six over the last three. Not bad for a unit that started the season off with a 13-3 loss to the mighty Toronto Blue Jays. Nick Blackburn looked the best out of all the starters in spring training and that his momentum has continued into the season. Blackburn leads the starters with six wins and a 3.16 ERA. This isn't to say the rest of the starters have been horrendous, however. Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano's ERA are on the high side, but Duensing has given up only five earned runs in his last three starts and Liriano has not given up more than three in his previous five. Scott Baker and Carl Pavano have also been more than steady. Baker's ERA is lower than it's ever been in his career, and Pavano is having the consistent season we knew he would. As I predicted, the starters have been the rock on which the Minnesota Twins stand, and lately more often then not they have been given the run support they need to succeed. The bullpen has not been so fortunate. Former starter Glen Perkins has been the only pitcher in the pen who could be considered as having a strong season. Like Nick Blackburn, his strong spring training has carried into the regular season. Jose Mijares has been a solid presence, with eight holds and an ERA of 4.24. The rest of the middle relief has been a revolving door of names that most Twins fans are less than familiar with. None of them have really left a positive impression, but thankfully Twins starters have been able to go deep enough into games to not have to worry about throwing another triple-A call-up to the mound. Closer Matt Capps has done a decent job of closing out games, with 11 saves. Joe Nathan had a 7.63 ERA before ending up on the DL, only reinforcing my springtime opinion that he simply was not ready for any kind of closing role. The only real problem in the pitching staff is the middle-relief, and if they get that issue at least somewhat solved the Twins should be more than able to keep moving at their torrid pace.
This team should only improve once Morneau, Thome and Kubel are added to the lineup, and all that we need out of our starting pitchers is for them to do what they have done all season. The other teams in the division have looked mediocre recently, and now looks to be the time for the Twins to make a move. I had high expectations for the Twins coming into the season, and though I definitely soured on them at the beginning of the season, at the moment it looks like nothing can stop the small-ball team from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.