A month in, Twins are fair to middling

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2008 - 9:30 AM

The Twins' April numbers have added up to a sub-.500 record that's still good enough to contend in the AL Central.

Carlos Gomez made a spectacular catch against Cleveland on April 20.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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It wasn't a splendid April for the Twins.

They had some expected growing pains and were thrown some unexpected curves.

Francisco Liriano went 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA. Delmon Young hit zero home runs. Mike Lamb batted .203.

Back in spring training, if the Twins had known those grim facts were coming, they probably would have expected to be buried by now.

Yet, here they are, sitting 1 1/2 games behind the first-place White Sox, at 13-14.

The Twins had just enough go right in April -- and expected AL Central front-runners Detroit and Cleveland had just enough go wrong -- to believe they actually can hang in the race for a while.

"Everybody said Detroit and Cleveland have slumped, but I think it's just a credit to how good this division is and how good this league is," Twins closer Joe Nathan said. "Teams are going to beat each other up. If you can keep your head above water, stay in the race, who knows what can happen if it comes down to the last couple months?"

All along, the Twins expected to get better as the season progressed.

One reason is comfort level. Lamb, Brendan Harris and Adam Everett all came from other teams, but of those three veterans, only Harris has settled smoothly into his new role.

Lamb and Everett could become comfortable with time.

But the main reason for the Twins' optimism is youth.

In Young and Carlos Gomez, they have two 22-year-old outfielders, both batting .265.

Young has just missed two home runs, hitting near the top of the outfield fence in left-center. With his power numbers lagging, he has at times become short with the media.

"I always feel confident at the plate," he has said repeatedly after recent ups and downs.

Said Gardenhire: "[Young] seems to have a really good attitude. He doesn't seem to let too many things bother him. A strikeout or something like that -- he's not one of these guys that go in there and snaps or anything like that. ...

"We expect very good things out of him. We're just not trying to put too much pressure on him that he has to hit 40 home runs. Just play the game the right way, and he's done that."

Gomez's game is much less refined than Young's. The Twins have seen some extreme highs and lows from their new center fielder, but so far, the good has outweighed the bad.

"I don't want to harness him," Gardenhire said. "I want to make him think things through, situational baseball. ... There's issues, but he's fun to watch. He's a gamer. You saw him diving after that ball in the outfield [Wednesday]. He's giving everything he has on every play."

The Twins figure Gomez will only get better with time.

With Liriano, 24, the team no longer can be sure.

After giving up five runs in 4 1/3 innings for Class AAA Rochester on Wednesday, Liriano told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, "It was better than my last start."

That wasn't saying much, as he didn't make it out of the first inning against Oakland on April 24.

"I'm struggling with my fastball," he added. "I just have to take it one pitch at a time, one start at a time."

Nearly eighteen months removed from elbow surgery, Liriano has looked nothing like he did as a rookie in 2006. The Twins thought he would at least be close when they studied their season outlook.

"Whether he's going to be able to do it or not, I don't have an answer for you," Gardenhire said. "I wish I did. It's going to be up to him now and how hard he works."

The Twins have weathered the Liriano developments, and they made it through three weeks when veteran leader Michael Cuddyer was on the disabled list because of a dislocated finger.

Now Cuddyer is healthy, and the heart of the order looks solid with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel all swinging relatively well.

Lamb and Young have track records to suggest they'll hit better than they have.

Averaging 3.8 runs per game -- second worst in the AL -- the Twins need more, especially with Detroit and Cleveland showing signs of emerging from early season slumbers.

So far, the Twins' starting pitching has been good enough to make up for the team's weak offense, but that might not last.

"Our division, we've seen everybody in it," Gardenhire said. "Detroit can knock the living fire out of the ball. But can we play with them? Absolutely. Just like we can play with Cleveland, and we can play with [the White Sox].

"It's just how you do it over the long run."

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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