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Hunker down for another nail-biter

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Hunker down for another nail-biter
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So here we are in the major league club's historic 50th season playing before sellout and near-sellout crowds at fantastic Target Field. Joe Mauer has signed a long-term contract and the Twins have the biggest payroll in the history of the franchise. Detroit and Chicago are both legitimate threats and Minnesota's division lead has evaporated with half the season ahead. The 2010 season sure has a lot of potential for another nail-biting pennant race.


By the time the sun sets on Independence Day the Minnesota Twins should have played half of their 2010 schedule. They may be one of the more disappointing first-place teams in baseball. The three-game series with Detroit saw them close out their June schedule with a 12-15 record.

One of the areas that offered trouble before the season was pitching. The club has good starting pitchers but that is not usually enough for a World Series bid. You have to have at least one great starter. Frank Viola was that great pitcher in 1987. Jack Morris stopped the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. This year's club does not have that kind of pitcher.

Look at Minnesota's starters, they all flirting with medocrity. Carl Pavano is 9-6, Francisco Liriano is 6-6, Scott Baker is 6-7, Nick Blackburn is 7-5 and Kevin Slowey is 8-5. Everyone of these pitchers has stepped up a pitched a superb game at one point or another this season, and everyone of them has been bombed.

Jon Rauch deserves praise for the job he has done in relieving ace closer Joe Nathan. The 6-11 righty is on a pace for 30-40 saves by the end of the year. Matt Guerrier and Brian Duensing have proven to be good set-up men. Jose Mijares has a great 2.25 ERA but manager Ron Gardenhire has had to watch his temperamental lefty very closely when a game in on the line. Young Alex Burnett has done well for a guy who was not supposed to make the team and his 3.15 ERA has been a nice surprise. Jesse Crain has made 32 appearances in relief despite a lousy 4.26 ERA. Gardy has around two million reasons to keep giving Crain the ball in relief situations but he clearly is not the pitcher he used to be.

So let's say the Twins stop fooling around and trade for Seattle lefty Cliff Lee. The 2008 season saw Lee winning a major-league high 22 games while in a Cleveland uniform. After the Indians sent him to Philadelphia last year, Lee posted a perfect 4-0 record and helped the Phillies reach the World Series. So far this season Lee is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA for a Seattle team that is sitting in the cellar. The Mariners would ask a lot for Lee but the merchandise might easily be worth the price tag if he turns out to be a stopper on the mound.

As it stands now, the Twins have the eighth-best pitching staff in baseball with a with it comes to ERA (3.90). This is not terrible, but not terrific and certainly not as good as it should be. The 314 runs they have given up has made the Twins just a shade better than a .500 team.

All you have to do to convince yourself the Twins need someone is to take a good look at their Central Division competition. The Twins have the Detroit Tigers right on their six and the Chicago White Sox have decided to play baseball too. They won 18 of their 27 games in June for a sizzling .666 percentage. After a horrible start, the White Sox are sitting 2 1/2 games back.

Justin Morneau and Delmon Young are having great seasons at the plate for Minnesota but that is right about where it ends. Having Morneau whole and well for the rest of the season is a key to Minnesota's stretch drive. He can't take the last couple of weeks off like he did in 2008, nor can the Twins afford an injury to their star first baseman and cleanup hitter.

Young is becoming the hitting threat the Twins thought they were getting when they traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay three years ago. The slimmed-down outfielder is all of 24-years-old now but is swinging a .300 bat that also carries more power. It has been suggested that Gardy move him up in the lineup but he does not want to make waves. Young is hitting the ball very well in the bottom half of the lineup.

Where are those home runs from 2009? The Twins had 96 home runs to their credit at the All-Star break last July. They have only 66 so far this season in pitcher-friendly Target Field and only Morneau and Jason Kubel are in double figures. Those homers helped the Twins score the third-most runs in the American League last year. This year's club is ranked 11th in runs with 366.

For all of his money and fame Joe Mauer is maybe the furthest off last year's pace. He has the home runs and is roughly 77 percentage points off last year's batting average at the All-Star break.

The Twins strike you as a team that needs drama to win. They are lions when the Central Division title is on the line. Two years ago they won a do-or-die series with Chicago to take first place in the division with just a handful of games remaining. They played great against the Chisox and then fell apart against Kansas City, forcing them to play a one-game playoff with the White Sox in Chicago. That game ended in a dramatic 1-0 defeat for Minny.

Last year they are trailing Detroit in the final month and suddenly they lose Morneau. Do they fold up? No way! They put Michael Cuddyer at first and get some terrific efforts out of Rauch, Duensing and Jeff Manship, three newcomers to the rotation and it all comes together in another one-game playoff at the Metrodome where they edge Detroit 6-5 in 12 innings.

If you were looking for a book about the history of Minnesota's 2008 and 2009 seasons you would find it in the science fiction section. Perhaps that is where you will find the 2010 season as well.

Brian Hansel
(218) 631-2561