June 25, 2006

Running Really Fast ... In Place

The Twins have won 14 of their last 16 games, going from 25-33 (.431) to 39-35 (.527). They've won five straight series--including three-game sweeps of the Red Sox, Pirates, and Cubs--and have won six of their last seven road games after beginning the season 9-24 away from the Metrodome. That's obviously the good news.

The bad news is that despite completely turning the season around, the Twins are nearly as far out of the playoff picture as they were before. Back on June 7 the Twins were 11.5 games behind the Tigers in the division and 11 games behind the White Sox for the Wild Card. And now? The Twins are 11 games behind the Tigers in the division and 9.5 games behind the White Sox for the Wild Card.

That's right, by winning 14 out of 16 games the Twins picked up a half game on Detroit and 1.5 games on Chicago.

The Twins' play over the past three weeks has been incredibly encouraging and the emergence of several young players once Tony Batista, Rondell White, and Juan Castro stopped playing regularly has made the team fun to watch again. With that said, the argument could be made that the Twins are actually facing longer odds to make the postseason now than they were before winning 14 of 16.

They've gone from being 11 games out of a playoff spot to 9.5 games out, but there are now 16 fewer games with which to close the gap. In other words, another 10 percent of the season has been played and the Twins essentially treaded water relative to the teams in front of them. That's a depressing way to look at things, but such is life when two teams in your division are on pace for 105-win seasons.

If the Tigers and White Sox simply play .500 baseball for the remainder of the season--they've won 67 percent and 66 percent of their respective games thus far--the Twins would have to go 56-32 (.636) to win the division or 55-33 (.625) to win the Wild Card. They'd also have to hold off the Yankees and Blue Jays, who are both still ahead of the Twins in the Wild Card standings.

I realize that today's entry makes me the proverbial turd in the punch bowl, but these are just the facts. Actually, my level of optimism rose to a surprisingly high level over the weekend, right up until the point that I looked at the standings and noticed how little things have actually improved. And if my new-found optimism has to come crashing down ... well, everyone else's optimism is coming along for the fall.

With all of that said, it's a whole hell of a lot more fun to watch the Twins now than it was just a few weeks ago. There's some reason to be emotionally involved on a day-to-day basis beyond wanting to torture yourself and there's some reason for hope. It's just that the hope probably has more to do with next season than most fans are willing to admit while riding this current wave of wins.

As for what's been behind all the winning, let's take a look ...

                       G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Justin Morneau 16 .422 .471 .875 1.346
Jason Kubel 13 .367 .380 .673 1.053
Jason Bartlett 11 .368 .455 .474 .928
Joe Mauer 14 .358 .469 .434 .903
Terry Tiffee 9 .316 .381 .474 .855
Michael Cuddyer 16 .237 .384 .441 .824
Torii Hunter 15 .255 .369 .364 .733
Mike Redmond 9 .316 .316 .368 .684
Nick Punto 16 .220 .350 .260 .610
Luis Castillo 13 .254 .290 .288 .578
Lew Ford 14 .121 .237 .182 .419

Justin Morneau has carried the team on his shoulders for the past 16 games, smacking eight homers, driving in 24 runs, and hitting .422/.471/.875 for a ridiculous 1.346 OPS. Jason Kubel can't quite match those numbers, but he batted .367/.380/.673 with four homers and 14 RBIs while also cracking a 1.000 OPS.

Jason Bartlett hit .368/.455/.474 stepping in for Castro (.231/.258/.308) at shortstop, Joe Mauer continued to bat .350, Terry Tiffee provided a nice spark off the bench and at third base, and Michael Cuddyer kept his overall production up despite a dip in batting average. Those six hitters have been the Twins' offense, making up for Luis Castillo's continued slump and Lew Ford's season-long ineptitude.

The lineup as a whole batted .280/.359/.432 during the 16-game stretch, scoring 5.7 runs per game after averaging just 4.5 runs per game through June 7. Despite a few big homers receiving most of the attention, getting on base at a much higher clip is actually the main reason behind a healthy run-scoring increase of 27 percent.

                        IP      ERA     SO     BB     WHIP
Juan Rincon 9.2 0.00 8 2 0.72
Dennys Reyes 4.2 0.00 5 1 0.86
Johan Santana 28.0 1.29 26 2 0.79
Jesse Crain 6.2 1.35 4 1 0.90
Francisco Liriano 22.0 1.64 24 5 0.68
Joe Nathan 13.0 2.08 17 2 1.00
Brad Radke 24.2 2.55 13 6 1.34
Boof Bonser 9.2 2.79 2 1 1.24
Willie Eyre 7.0 3.86 6 3 1.57
Carlos Silva 18.0 4.00 9 2 1.33
Kyle Lohse 6.1 8.53 7 4 2.21

After allowing 5.2 runs per game through June 7, the Twins' pitching staff amazingly cut that in half over the past 16 games, allowing an average of 2.7 runs per game. During that stretch they held opponents to a measly .236/.278/.344, posting a 114-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Five of those 29 walks were intentional, meaning the pitchers handed out just 1.5 non-intentional walks per game.

The main sources of the staff's dominance is easy to spot. Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano combined to go 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 50-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50 innings. In the bullpen, Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon combined for a 1.19 ERA and 25-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22.2 innings, as Nathan finally found consistent work for the first time all year.

Jesse Crain and Dennys Reyes were also very effective in relief, and Brad Radke and Carlos Silva quietly returned to respectability after throwing batting practice for the first 10 weeks or so. In fact, the only pitcher on the entire staff who pitched poorly over the past 16 games is Kyle Lohse, who put up an 8.53 ERA in 6.1 innings while Pat Neshek keeps making Triple-A hitters look silly.

Add it all up and you get an offense scoring 27 percent more often, a pitching staff giving up half as many runs, and a team going 14-2 after starting 25-33. The Twins may not keep it up and it might be too late to truly matter anyway, but watching Mauer, Santana, Liriano, Morneau, Kubel, Nathan, Bartlett, Cuddyer, and Rincon is enough to make me think 2007 could be a special year.

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