Surprised? A Little Bit, I Guess

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

If you haven’t been paying attention, you’ve been missing a strange, maddening, encouraging, teetering-on-the-brink-of-disaster one day, triumphing-over-adversity the next, almost wholly improbable stretch of baseball from the Minnesota Twins.

The Twins season to date doesn’t really add up, and they’re certainly not going about their business the way past teams have. Yet, somehow, every time they get knocked down they seem to find a way to get back up. Bitch all you want about whatever you want (and there’s been plenty to bitch about), but you have to give the Twins this much: they’re battlers, as evidenced most recently in the just concluded four-game split with the Yankees –three one-run games, all sorts of lead changes, and the by now expected assortment of weird plays.

Obviously nobody expected the Central to be such an undistinguished muddle, and just as surely very, very few people expected the Twins to be a half-game out in the first week of June. Still, it’s probably not really such a surprise that the Twins would be three games over .500 at this point. The real surprise has been how inconsistent –and even awful– the other clubs have been. As erratic as the Twins have been, they’ve been almost a model of consistency relative to the rest of the division.

I guess it’s also been something of a surprise how the Twins have gotten to where they’re at. Is anybody else sort of taken aback to realize that, among American League teams, Minnesota is now trailing only Boston, Detroit, and Texas in runs scored, this despite the fact that the club is still next to last in homeruns? Is anybody else surprised that the Twins are 18-9 against the Central, easily the best mark in the division?

I’m not terribly surprised by all the runs the Twins have given up (274 –only Detroit, Texas, and Seattle have surrendered more), so much as by the manner in which they’ve given them up. I think most of us figured going in that the starting pitching would be a sketchy proposition, and we’ve mostly been proven right, even as I’d argue that, Boof notwithstanding, the starters have done a pretty damn good job of keeping the team in games.

This is a bit of an aside, but here’s a stat I can’t quite get my head around: Nick Blackburn has a WHIP (walk plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.38; Boof’s at 1.40, and Livan Hernandez is at a ridiculous 1.52. Boof leads the starters in strikeouts, and there’s not a huge disparity in homers allowed –Hernandez, in fact, has surrended one more. So what’s the problem with the Boofster? Situational pitching, I suppose, Boof’s inability to work his way out of jams and avoid innings that snowball; a bad inning followed by several good innings, followed by another bad inning; in a word, inconsistency. Translation: Boof’s problems are mental as much as they are mechanical, and, at the very least, he’ll be a much-needed warm body in the pen.

God knows his presence will be welcomed by the other guys slumped on the bench down the leftfield line. Because the bullpen absolutely got killed in May. Some of this was almost certainly a product of being overworked (an obvious concern in the second month of the season, particularly with so many question marks), but the numbers really were alarming. In the 27 May games in which the bullpen appeared, relievers allowed runs in 19 of those (and that doesn’t take into account inherited runs they allowed to score). For the month the pen pitched 97 innings in those 27 games, giving up 106 hits, 46 walks, and 46 runs. Beyond Guerrier and Nathan, there really isn’t a guy left in the pen that inspires supreme confidence, or even tenuous confidence.

The obvious remedy to this, or the only way to keep the pen from further implosion (hard as that is to imagine) as the summer wears on, is for the starters to settle in and start grinding out more innings. There are at least tentative indications that these guys –Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, certainly Hernandez, and possibly Perkins– are making progress toward that goal. The guys with the bats in their hands have showed that if the pitching staff can at least keep the game close, they’ll keep hacking and battling until the last pitch.

The other early concern, of course, has been the defense, but –and I may be in a bit of denial here– I really do expect that to work itself out. I’ve been sort of amazed by what a stabilizing presence Alexi Casilla has been both in the field and at the plate. He doesn’t look anything like the guy we saw last year, and he was scuffling at Rochester before the desperation call-up. So while it’s possible that he’ll regress, I’m cautiously optimistic that he’s here to stay, and is finally ready to deliver on the promise he showed when he was the Twins’ minor league player of the year a couple seasons ago.

I’ll say the same thing today that I said on opening night: This is a fun team to watch, and consistently fun, which is saying something when it comes to Major League baseball in the 21st century. And with both Cleveland and Detroit struggling to maintain any sort of positive momentum, and Chicago threatening to any day now get swallowed up by the spontaneous human combustion of its manager, the division that was widely regarded as the best in baseball a few months ago could actually go to a team that wins 88 games.

And, hey, just possibly the Twins –a club that has at times been as frustrating and disappointing as any in recent memory, yet which has nonetheless managed to creep within a half game of the division lead– could be that team, even if that notion still seems somehow utterly ludicrous.

Finally, I’ll leave you with these mind bogglers: Justin Morneau leads the Twins with 109 total bases, the exact same number that Cristian Guzman now has for the Washington Nationals. And in 88 at bats with Pittsburgh, Luis Rivas has as many homeruns (three) as Delmon Young, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer combined.







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