MILWAUKEE - For the first 2½ days of their three-game series in Milwaukee, the Twins' clubhouse looked like a cross between a fraternity house and a barracks. Jeff Cirillo and Lew Ford played chess (although there is no evidence that either ever made a move), the relievers played Jenga and, subjected to unrelenting peer pressure, even the most hirsute of players subjected themselves to hair-razing, morale-raising head shavings.
Relying on two young pitchers, the Twins eased to victory Friday and Saturday, then handed veteran Ramon Ortiz leads of 4-0 and 5-2 on Sunday. A couple of hours later, the frat party was over.
Ortiz, proving that experience is overrated, ruined an otherwise perfect weekend in Milwaukee, and the Twins left the clubhouse quietly after losing 6-5, feeling the party had gotten cut as short as their hair.
"It's disappointing when you have a lead and you have a chance to sweep a team, and you don't hold it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Ramon just couldn't make enough pitches."
Ortiz faced Brewers slugger Geoff Jenkins with two on, one out and a 5-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth. Pitching coach Rick Anderson visited the mound and recommended throwing a sinker off the plate. The last thing Anderson wanted to see was a low fastball over the heart of the plate -- the power zone for Jenkins, who otherwise has holes in his swing the size of butterball turkeys.
Anderson walked back to the dugout, then watched Ortiz throw a low fastball over the heart of the plate. Jenkins launched it for the three-run homer.
The Twins signed Ortiz so they wouldn't have to expose their pitching prospects to the big leagues before their time. May has demonstrated that Ortiz lacks the command, composure and pitching savvy of some of the Twins' youngsters.
Kevin Slowey, who never has thrown a pitch in the big leagues, might be better equipped to help the Twins than the veteran Ortiz.
"Ramon overthrows, then he tries to nibble," Anderson said. "He's not pitching with confidence and attacking the zone. I don't think he pitched inside today.
"He's got to be able to slow the game down and keep himself and his mind under control and get back to being consistent with his pitches."
Ortiz went 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA in April. This month, he is 0-3 with an 11.76 ERA. Sunday, he gave up 10 hits and five runs in 41/3 innings. Overall, he's 3-4 with a 5.36 ERA. Slowey, who continues to dominate Triple A, is 4-2 with a 1.46 ERA, two complete games, 31 hits, three walks and 44 strikeouts in 491/3 innings.
The key to the Twins' season is the same today as it was coming out of spring training -- transitioning from erratic veterans to talented youngsters when the time is right. While the Twins usually are too patient to give up on someone like Ortiz before the end of May, they need to consider his history.
He hasn't produced an impressive season as a starter since 2002. His only burst of competence since then came in 2004, when he pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the Angels. His ERA was 5.20 in 2003, 4.43 in 2004, 5.36 in 2005 and 5.57 last year.
Ortiz's horrid May merely has returned him to the statistical neighborhood in which he usually resides.
"It's all about starting pitching," Gardenhire said.
"The first two days we got really good starts. And today, not so good. We come out of here winning the series, knowing we had a good opportunity to get a sweep, and we didn't get it done."
Starting pitching is the one area of the team the Twins can improve from within. Eventually, and perhaps soon, they will need to call up Slowey, perhaps while moving Ortiz into a bullpen tattered by injuries.
With Slowey on speed dial and Matt Garza in reserve, the Twins' pitching might yet grow strong enough to allow them to contend in baseball's best division.