Last season, the second spot in the batting order was an enormous liability for the Twins. The crucial lineup position produced an execrable .232/.272/.326 hitting line when occupied by anyone other than Joe Mauer. That means that when Mauer, the league's finest hitter, was batting third, the players in front of him were making outs about 73 percent of the time. It was depressing.
This ineptitude prompted me to posit back in early spring training that the signing of free agent Orlando Hudson late in the offseason was bound to be Bill Smith's most impactful winter move. Sure enough, Hudson was an absolute revelation in the two-spot through the first two months of the season, batting .300 with an outstanding .377 on-base percentage while chipping in a bit of power as well, as attested by his three homers and .421 slugging percentage. That's production that we're just not accustomed to seeing from that spot in the batting order.
Unfortunately, an outfield collision with Denard Span at the end of May has put Orlando Hudson on the shelf for the first half of June, and in his absence we're experiencing some familiar headaches at the top of the lineup. Rather than simply shifting Mauer into the No. 2 spot and moving everyone else up a spot, Ron Gardenhire has elected to cycle different lousy middle infielders through the two-hole, writing in either J.J. Hardy, Matt Tolbert or Trevor Plouffe each day. The results have been disastrous. With Hudson gone in June, the team's No. 2 hitters entered last night's game having gone 4-for-47, good for a batting average of .085. They'd not managed one extra-base hit. They'd struck out 13 times and drawn four walks. They'd crossed the plate only four times in 12 games despite having Mauer and Justin Morneau behind them in the lineup. Tolbert had a solid performance in last night's blowout victory, homering and walking twice, but that doesn't change the fact that it has been a problem.
Gardenhire's stubborn fixation on keeping a middle infielder in the second lineup spot has been a major source of frustration for me over the years and it continues to this day. Some think I blow the issue out of proportion, but having an automatic out jammed in the middle of all your best hitters is clearly detrimental to run production, and the Twins simply haven't been producing many runs this month. Obviously, Gardenhire is handcuffed to some degree by the wrist injuries that have ravaged his middle infielders, but sticking three of the team's worst hitters in one of the most important positions in the lineup is absolutely not the answer.
It's not like Gardenhire doesn't want the team to win, and I find it impossible to believe that he doesn't notice how consistently these players have been failing to get the job done in front of the team's best hitters. I'd think that at some point he'd finally start resisting the urge to write one of the team's no-hit backup infielders into that lineup spot, yet he just keeps doing it, as demonstrated by Tolbert's presence there last night.
If Gardenhire's oft-stated excuses were once valid, they're not anymore. He claims he wants to have players in the No. 2 spot who can "handle the bat." If the guys he's trotting out there can handle the bat so well, one would think that they'd be able to get a hit once every 10 at-bats. They're not moving runners over, they're not getting on base and they're not working great at-bats. They're just making outs at a catastrophic rate and killing potential rallies.
Gardenhire says he doesn't want to throw everyone else out of their rhythm by moving people all over the lineup but this offense could use a shake-up. They scored a total of six runs in three games at home over the weekend. Mauer responded well to hitting in the two-spot last year (he hit .398 in 33 games there) so sliding him up should be an option. And if Gardenhire refuses to remove Mauer from the No. 3 spot, he should consider Delmon Young, who's been the team's hottest hitter. Even Nick Punto has proven to be less of a black hole than Tolbert and Plouffe.
The lingering injuries that are affecting Hudson and Hardy have put Gardenhire in a tough spot when it comes to constructing lineups, without a doubt. But a great manager adjusts to tough circumstances and makes move to keep the team on track. Gardenhire has not been making those adjustments, and the team's struggles to score runs over the past few weeks have been -- at least partially -- a reflection of that.
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