Joe Christensen: Twins on the march this April

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2007 - 11:11 PM

After a horrible April in 2006, the Twins tore through the season and rallied for a division title. How will they fare with a stronger start?

If you thought the Twins had a rough April, think back to where they were last year at this time. Their record was 9-15. They trailed the White Sox by eight games and the upstart Tigers by 6½. Three of their pitchers looked like slugs. Carlos Silva had a 10.31 ERA, Kyle Lohse 8.77 and Brad Radke 8.89.

Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson remember the sleepless nights. That's why they feel pretty good right now at 14-11.

Silva has a 3.10 ERA. Ramon Ortiz is 5-for-5 in quality starts after delivering just one quality start in his first eight tries last season for Washington.

"That probably was my biggest concern this year coming in, just getting off to a good start," Anderson said. "This gives them confidence, and that can carry them. Then, if they hit a bump along the way, at least they've got this to fall back on."

Silva never really overcame his slow start last year, finishing with a 5.94 ERA.

"Silva would be the first to admit he pressed every game he pitched last year, thinking, 'This is going to be the game I do it,' " Anderson said. "This shuts them up and gives them the confidence to move on."

May will be significantly tougher. At least that's how the schedule looks. After a three-game series at Tampa Bay, beginning tonight, the Twins come home for their most challenging homestand of the year: nine games with the Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers. Then it's on to Cleveland and Milwaukee, both first-place teams.

Sidney Ponson, who starts tonight against the Devil Rays, is the pitching staff's biggest concern with his 8.44 ERA.

But this time, the Twins have four starters knocking on the door if Ponson or Boof Bonser (5.26 ERA) falter. Glen Perkins is in the bullpen. Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are dominating at Class AAA Rochester.

Last May, the Twins turned to Francisco Liriano, who provided the kind of jolt teams can expect about once a generation. No matter how good the Twins' current Fab Four might be, there's no way they will make the impact Liriano did with his 12-3 record and 2.16 ERA.

Without a Liriano-like complement to Johan Santana, the Twins can't expect a run of 19 victories in 20 games, like they had last June.

But after a stronger April, the Twins won't have as far to climb. They're in better shape than the Yankees, who started 9-14 and must chase down the 16-8 Red Sox.

As tough as the American League Central looks, no team is running away from the pack. The top four teams are separated by 2½ games.

It's a far cry from 2005, when the White Sox were 17-7 at the end of April and 35-17 at the end of May.

The Twins were 15-8 and 29-21 that year but simply couldn't keep up.

This April, the Twins played one series against all four AL Central opponents, finishing 5-7. They have been most impressed by Cleveland's bullpen and the overall improvement of the Royals.

But one month in, the Twins are exactly where most people thought they would be, embroiled in what figures to be a six-month dogfight. Before it's over, these teams will face each other 18 times.

"I definitely think it's the best division in baseball, from what I've seen," Twins catcher Mike Redmond said.

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