June 20, 2011
Through two months the Twins won just 17 times in 53 games for baseball's worst record, but so far this month they've already won 14 times in 17 games and the remarkable thing is that they're still not even close to playing with a full, healthy roster. Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Joe Nathan, and Kevin Slowey are on the disabled list and much of this June run came without Joe Mauer, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Glen Perkins.
In going 14-3 after starting the season 17-36 they've gotten solid performances from all sorts of unlikely sources and yesterday's comeback victory versus the Padres may have featured the unlikeliest trio of heroes yet, as Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert, and Rene Tosoni ignited the rally against one of the best bullpens in baseball after coming into the game with a combined .179 batting average in 278 at-bats.
Some of the same batting-average-on-balls-in-play demons that plagued Francisco Liriano for most of last year returned yesterday, as all eight hits he allowed were singles and few were well-struck. However, he avoided unraveling and turned in an impressive outing with just two walks versus eight strikeouts while continuing a seven-week streak of strong starts that has seen Liriano post a 2.20 ERA and 40-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 innings since May 1.
And he's hardly alone, as the entire pitching staff has turned things around in a huge way this month after ranking dead last in ERA through the end of May. None of the six pitchers to start a game this month have an ERA above 3.00, as Carl Pavano (1.44), Nick Blackburn (1.77), Liriano (1.80), Scott Baker (2.40), Brian Duensing (2.80), and Anthony Swarzak (3.00) have combined for a 2.07 ERA in 17 starts.
Some of that is due to good luck in the form of a low batting average on balls in play and the bullpen stranding runners, but Twins starters have 84 strikeouts versus just 22 walks in 117 innings, leading the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and xFIP while getting back to their usual league-best walk rate. And while the bullpen's secondary stats haven't been quite as strong they've been even stingier with a 1.81 ERA and .195 opponents' batting average in 35 innings.
Add it all up and the Twins have allowed just 2.5 runs per game this month after giving up 5.3 runs per game in April and 5.1 runs per game in May, posting a league-best 3.50 xFIP in June after a league-worst 4.47 xFIP in April and second-to-worst 4.27 xFIP in May. You don't need a whole lot of run support to string a bunch of wins together holding teams to just 2.5 runs per game, but the Twins' offense has also improved despite never being at full strength.
They ranked dead last among AL teams with 3.2 runs per game in April and second-worst with 3.9 runs per game in May, but so far in June the Twins have scored 4.5 runs per game. That can't compete with the pitching staff's extraordinary turnaround, but 4.5 runs per game is just slightly below what the Twins' lineup produced last season and even closer once you account for scoring being down across the league this year.
Michael Cuddyer has led the charge, hitting .333/.403/.667 with five homers, six doubles, and 15 RBIs in 17 games to make my mockery of his All-Star credentials looks awfully silly and Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes, Delmon Young, and even Butera have also come up big. Span's status remains uncertain following his concussion, but Thome is nearing a return and Morneau and Kubel could be back before the end of the month. All of which is the good news.
The bad news is that even after starting this month 14-3 the Twins are still eight games below .500 and in fourth place with the second-worst record in the league, eight games behind the division-leading Indians and seven games back of the second-place Tigers. They were buried so deep in that early hole that even this remarkable run has only begun to dig the Twins out and their playoff odds are still in the low single digits.
Of course, even "low single digits" sounds a whole lot better than 0.1 percent, which is where they stood on June 1. They were never going to finish the season with the worst record in the league and even now it's pretty safe to assume that the Twins will be better than their overall .443 winning percentage, but there's a big difference between better than their current record and good enough to dig totally out of the early hole.
Luckily the AL Central looks as weak and possibly even weaker than usual, with the Indians crashing back down to earth following their shockingly great start, the Tigers closing the gap on them despite being on pace for just 87 wins, and the White Sox sputtering along at 35-38. There isn't a 95-win team in the AL Central, but the Twins' fate may rest on whether it'll take 85 wins or 90 wins to claim the division title.
They'd need to go 54-38 to finish with 85 wins, which is a very lofty 95-win pace but within the realm of possibility. However, if the number to win the division is 90 wins they'd have to go 59-33, which is a 104-win pace and veers into unrealistically wishful thinking even in the midst of a 14-3 stretch. There's still an awful lot of digging to be done if they're going to make things interesting down the stretch, but at least the Twins can see some daylight through the dirt.
This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota salsa company Curt's Salsa, which I've enjoyed on several occasions and personally recommend.