Baltimore's turnaround offers hope for Twins

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2012 - 8:51 AM

 Last year, Baltimore was as bad as the Twins. It didn't take a major overhaul to change that this year.

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Cleveland Indians shortstop Brent Lillibridge, left, tagged out Minnesota Twins' Pedro Florimon trying to steal second in the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, in Cleveland.

Photo: Mark Duncan, Associated Press

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CLEVELAND -- The Baltimore Orioles have rattled off a remarkable streak, winning 15 consecutive extra-inning games, including two this week in Seattle while most of the country was sleeping.

Their turnaround, after 14 consecutive losing seasons, might seem hard to grasp for bottom-dwelling teams such as the Twins, but it hasn't taken a major overhaul.

The tide changed last September, when the Orioles went 15-13 with some gutsy performances against contenders. Buck Showalter's squad won three consecutive series against Tampa Bay and Boston in the season's final 16 days, and dealt the Red Sox their final blow with a walk-off win on the season's final night.

Beginning Friday, a similar opportunity presents itself to the Twins -- three games in Detroit, followed by a six-game homestand against the Yankees and Tigers.

Thursday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to Cleveland at Progressive Field dropped the Twins and Indians into a last-place tie. The Twins are 9-10 in September, but this will be the stretch that defines their final month, determining what -- if any -- momentum they'll carry into 2013.

Few conclusions can be drawn from Thursday's defeat, which cost the Twins a sweep. Rookie reliever Kyle Waldrop coughed up a sixth-inning lead, and Anthony Swarzak gave up Casey Kotchman's game-winning hit in the 10th. But even when players succeed in September against other noncontenders, it's hard to know how meaningful that is.

Liam Hendriks notched his first victory Wednesday, in his 18th major league start, but the Twins will be far more interested in how he pitches Monday against the Yankees.

The Twins looked overmatched in their past three meaningful games, as the White Sox swept them by a combined score of 20-5 last weekend at Target Field.

Just two Septembers ago, the Twins were the ones watching the out-of-town scoreboard, as they finished off their sixth division title in nine seasons.

"There's nothing like it," Gardenhire said. "The intensity level's turned all the way up every game. It seems like every pitch means something. That's what you miss. That's why we want to get back there."

How close are they?

"There are so many things that need to get fixed, really," Gardenhire said. "Let's see what we do this winter. We've got pitching problems, we're still trying to figure out a defense, where we're going to play people."

The 2011 Orioles actually were similar to these Twins. Baltimore finished 69-93, ranking seventh in the American League in runs scored (4.37) and last in runs allowed (5.31).

The Twins are on pace to finish 67-95, and they entered Thursday ranking seventh in the AL in runs scored (4.42) and second-to-last in runs allowed (5.20).

Baltimore's key offseason moves were signing free-agent starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and trading Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel. The defense improved dramatically when 20-year-old Manny Machado took over third base, allowing Mark Reynolds to move to first base, and the Orioles bullpen ranks among the league's best.

Basically, the Orioles are better because their starting pitching is no longer horrible, and they're doing everything else reasonably well.

"It can be done," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "Baltimore's a prime example, and so is Oakland, actually. So there aren't any excuses. Keep working and grinding away. Yeah, you have to get lucky, but you also have to make good baseball decisions."

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