April 15, 2009

Baker Struggles In Return, Twins Fall To 4-6

After missing his Opening Day assignment due to shoulder soreness, Scott Baker made his season debut last night and joined the rest of the Twins' rotation by struggling. Baker served up four homers in allowing six runs over four innings and as a group Twins starters have given up 39 runs in 59 innings through 10 games. Take out Glen Perkins' pair of eight-inning starts and they've given up 36 runs in 43 innings. Despite those ugly numbers I'm not hugely worried and Ron Gardenhire seems to agree:

They're all trying to figure it out. It's not a time to panic. We have a very good young pitching staff. Sometimes this is a good thing when they get beat around. They know they have to really step back and can't just throw your uniform out there and your glove out there. You have to work at it and make better pitches.

The bullpen hasn't been much better while allowing 20 runs over 31 innings and that remains a bigger concern. Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Francisco Liriano will eventually be fine and Perkins' first two starts are encouraging, but struggles by Philip Humber and Luis Ayala have reinforced my low expectations for them going into the year. Ayala has shown nothing, and through nine Twins appearances Humber has looked every bit like someone with a 4.41 ERA and mediocre secondary numbers at Triple-A.

Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier have fortunately pitched well while Ayala struggles and Joe Nathan has shown his usual filthy stuff, and how those three guys fare is obviously much more important than how Humber performs in a long-relief role. Unfortunately the rigid usage of Nathan has continued from last season and the Twins' best, highest-paid pitcher has appeared in just three of the first 10 games while throwing fewer innings than everyone on the staff save for Craig Breslow.

Breslow posted a 1.91 ERA and 39 strikeouts over 47 innings last year while shutting down both lefties (.183/.230/.232) and righties (.221/.330/.233), yet Gardenhire appears determined to misguidedly and unnecessarily hammer his square peg into the decidedly round hole of Dennys Reyes' old left-handed specialist gig. Nathan and Breslow combining to face 19 measly batters through 10 games while Ayala pitches to 29 hitters is strategy that needs to change.

Baker rejoining the rotation is a huge addition regardless of the batting practice that he threw last night and the Twins also revealed some other good news on the injury front with Joe Mauer now scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment next week. We're midway through the season's second week and the AL Central is a combined 20-25 while the preseason favorites in Cleveland are at 2-7, so simply treading water until Mauer returns is a perfectly acceptable, if frustrating goal for the Twins.

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I'll be "live blogging" this afternoon's Yankees-Indians matchup over at NBCSports.com, so feel free to check out "Circling the Bases" and read my running commentary on the game or participate by asking questions. There may not be a whole lot of Twins talk, but you're guaranteed at least one joke about CC Sabathia's weight every 30 minutes. Promise.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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