Thursday, June 23, 2011
Pitching has Twins back in AL Central race
By Christina Kahrl
Wednesday night, the San Francisco Giants finally brought the Minnesota Twins' winning ways to an end, stopping their streak at eight with a 5-1 setback. However, all that did was keep the Twins' record at a still-blistering 15-3 in their previous 18. One loss doesn’t mean Minnesota’s momentum over the season's long march has evaporated, and folks were, if anything, way too quick to count them out before this run.
Carl Pavano has pitched two complete games and has four wins in his past four starts.
Naturally, a good part of that is what some statheads would refer to as "luck," or a matter of convenient timing. Sweeping the Royals and the Padres during their run isn't proof of this team's enduring dominance, but a reminder of Lou Boudreau's old observation that if you want to contend, you better beat up the bad teams. But the scheduling gods didn't answer any particular prayer, having long since charted the Twins' travel plans. More notably, the Twins are 6-1 in one-run games during their June run, with the lone loss a 1-0 shutout setback suffered at the hands of the Tribe's Carlos Carrasco. And in the middle of their just-ended win streak, they managed four one-run wins, two by 1-0 margins.
You can call that luck, but it also reflects the virtue of some simply tremendous pitching. During their 15-3 run, the Twins have allowed just less than 2.4 runs per nine (with a gaudier 1.88 ERA), the stuff that dreams of 1968 are made of. The pen is allowing just 1.8 runs per nine in June. The Twins have gotten 13 quality starts in 19 games this month, with Carl Pavano a perfect four-for-four in four Twins wins. Pitching this robust is part of the reason why the Twins have actually outperformed their expected record by a couple of wins.
The offense has been remarkably different as well, scoring 4.5 runs per game after eking out just 3.5 per in the first two months. To put the 3.5 runs per game in context, that would currently rank last in the league, underwhelming even the Mariners' tepid last-place attack. Switch to equivalent average on the full season, park- and league-adjusted, and the Twins are putting up a 12th-place .245 EqA in the AL, besting only the Athletics and Mariners.
What's impressive is that the Twins have lifted their offensive game without their MVP stalwarts, the M&M boys. They’re also doing it without Jim Thome beating Father Time or Denard Span leading off or Jason Kubel finally proving whether he has another big 2009 season in him. It doesn't owe much to Joe Mauer now being back from the DL -- Twins catchers had a collective .497 OPS before Wednesday night's game, but Mauer managed to bring it down with an unproductive first week back.
It takes a lot of faith in protection or synergy to believe that Mauer's return is all that responsible for the lineup's overall improvement. Justin Morneau is still on the shelf and recovering from a wrist injury, but he still hasn't really demonstrated that he can come all the way back from the concussion he suffered a year ago -- that's something we can all just hope for, not count on. Delmon Young and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are both back from the DL, but neither is delivering what was expected, either in terms of last season’s power from Young, or Nishioka's OBP potential.
Instead, the Twins' attack has had to depend almost entirely on Michael Cuddyer and Alexi Casilla. Cuddyer’s 13 extra-base hits (five home runs) in June are hard to miss, to the point that his name can get bandied about as the token Twins All-Star if Mauer doesn’t get voted in. Happily, Cuddyer’s not alone -- Casilla’s .329/.386/.474 while hitting in the second hole has given Cuddyer someone to drive in now and again. It makes for an odd pair of bats to carry a team, but beggars can’t be choosers, and before June, beggary was Minnesota’s lot.
Because of all these injuries and the expectation that the Twins will still get everyone back in something like full working order at some point during the summer, they're still in this thing. Per Clay Davenport's projection-based Postseason Odds, the Twins got their chances up to just over 12 percent before their Wednesday night loss to the Giants. That may not sound like much of a shot, but their streak put them back on the map. Admittedly, they're not alone as far as playing hare to the tortoises that the Tribe or Tigers might represent -- the White Sox are 26-17 after a start that put them 11 games below .500 a month into the season.
Minnesota's recent hot run brings to the forefront all sorts of hot-button issues. Take realignment: If the Twins were in any other setup than the uneven three-division, one wild-card setup, and in any other division other than the AL Central, they wouldn't be a phenomenon, they'd be zombies, just like the Orioles, dead in the daylight and looking for brains. But because they're in the Central, where the average projected win total to take the division title is an MLB-low 87 wins (again, per Davenport), all things remain possible.
As a result, if you want a division race for all the marbles, will anything beat the Central's four-team, winner-take-all brawl? A month out from deadline dealing, there's no telling which of the four might swing the swap that lets them loft a divisional flaglet. But just because the Indians invited themselves into what was expected to be a three-team race early on, the Twins have not yet excused themselves, which makes for one of the best races to watch with half a season yet to play.