With Twins pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, Terry Ryan, a born optimist, points to the fact that Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano pitched the Twins to a division title in 2010, and thus are capable of bouncing back after a rough 2011.

"I've mentioned that many times that this is the same group that actually won a bunch of games for us in 2010," the Twins general manager said. "Last year, it didn't go very well for all of these guys with the exception of Pavano. We need to get them back if we stand any chance of competing. We need innings, we need starts, which will allow us not to overexpose any of the bullpen. I think any club, if you don't get decent starting pitching, you're probably asking for trouble right out of the get-go."

Ryan said that Blackburn, the one starter who had offseason surgery, is 100 percent healthy, as are the other pitchers, who all went through a physical evaluation while in Minneapolis for TwinsFest.

Like Ryan said, the Twins will need their starting rotation to get back to the effectiveness it showed in 2010 when the starters posted a combined 4.17 ERA, good for fifth in the American League. Last season, that ERA went up nearly a half-run to 4.64, 12th in the AL.

Another major problem for the Twins in 2011 was the foursome of Baker, Blackburn, Liriano and Pavano pitched only 639 1/3 innings in 2011, compared with 744 innings in 2010.

Struggles in 2011

Each of those four starters struggled in some way in 2011. Pavano was the most consistent and the only one to avoid going on the disabled list. In 2010 he posted a 17-11 record with a 3.75 ERA in 221 innings. In 2011 he went 9-13 with a 4.30 ERA in 222 innings.

Liriano fell off the most, going from 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 191 2/3 innings in 2010 to 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA in 134 1/3 innings in 2011, when he missed time to shoulder trouble.

Baker probably was the Twins' best starter for much of the season last year, but injuries eventually caught up to him, too. Because of an elbow problem, he didn't make any starts after Aug. 8, finishing with an 8-6 record, 3.14 ERA and 134 2/3 innings pitched in 2011, compared with 12-9 with a 4.49 ERA in 170 1/3 innings in 2010.

Blackburn went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA in 2010 and posted a better ERA but a worse record in 2011: 7-10, 4.49. He missed time last season because of back tightness and a strained forearm.

Overall, the Opening Day starting rotation went from a 65-48 record in 2010 (including the departed Kevin Slowey in the group) to a 42-53 record in 2011 (including Brian Duensing, who is expected to begin this season pitching out of the bullpen).

A lot of the media and fans believed that it was no-brainer for the Twins to add a solid starting pitcher to the 2012 staff after last year unraveled.

However, the Twins' lone new starter for this season appears to be Jason Marquis, who signed to a one-year, $3 million contract. Marquis spent last season with Washington and Arizona, going 8-6 with a 4.43 ERA in 23 starts before missing the last six weeks of the season after a line drive broke his leg. Elbow trouble limited him to 58 2/3 innings in 2010, but in the six seasons before that he averaged 196 innings per season.

U considers switch

Gophers football coach Jerry Kill believes there are a number of reasons to switch this year's opener against UNLV in Las Vegas from Saturday, Sept. 1, to Thursday, Aug. 30.

"Us playing at UNLV, if we did open up on a Thursday and it is nationally televised, all those things are good for us," Kill said. "I always think about a student-athlete, and ... if we play on a Saturday night and they're going to get back Sunday at 5 in the morning, that puts us behind in preparation for the next game. Whereas if we play on a Thursday, you get an extra day or two in preparation for the next game so that helps your kids."

Kill pointed out it might put some stress on fans who have made travel plans. "Then you're controlled by TV somewhat and publicity, and so I think there's a lot of pluses and minuses about it," Kill said. "I always think about the students, the fans, the whole ball of wax, TV is a part of it, hopefully whatever decision is made, it's the best one for everybody."

Gophers spring practice starts March 22. The word is that because of the popularity of Kill, season-ticket renewals are doing better than expected, considering the Gophers home schedule this season doesn't include North Dakota State, Nebraska, Iowa or Wisconsin.


• University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler made another move this week that shows he is going to be interested in the his Gophers sports programs, when he held two separate meetings with head coaches of all sports to discuss his ideas on what the new athletic director should stand for.

• A local resident wintering in Arizona sends a story appearing in a Phoenix newspaper reporting that Arizona's Indian tribes will contribute approximately $12.7 million to the state from gambling revenue for the quarter ending Dec. 31, a 12 percent increase from the same quarter in 2010. However, none of that money goes to sports. On the other hand, there aren't any contributions to the state from tribal-run casinos here.

• Ohio State's Thad Matta is another big-time coach who has personally seen Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, who scored 45 points Tuesday in an 85-75 loss to Eastview. Jones, a sophomore averaging 29 points a game, has been offered a scholarship by Duke, among other schools.

• Saturday's Timberwolves crowd was announced at 20,232, their largest home crowd since March 12, 2004, and the fourth-largest in Target Center history. The game against the Knicks and Jeremy Lin included 1,000 standing room only sales.

• Herb Brooks, the former Gophers, NHL and Olympic hockey coach, was featured on a recent impressive Big Ten Network showing of their "Big Ten Icons," with famed broadcaster Keith Jackson on the program and a number of interesting interviews honoring a man who won three NCAA titles here.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com