Twins Insider: A lack of hope breeds a whole lot of tension

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2007 - 11:12 PM

Frustration is showing as the Twins deal with a September lacking a playoff race and a future that's likely not to include some key figures.

CHICAGO — As a lot, the Twins are too good-natured to bear the label "Team Turmoil," but by their mostly pleasant standards, the clubhouse has been downright grim.

It wasn't just the losing this week, or the disappearance from the pennant race. It was the tone.

Joe Mauer was mad at the media. Johan Santana was questioning the team's desire. And news leaked that management's best attempts to keep Torii Hunter from free agency had been for no better 60 percent of his asking price.

Meanwhile, as the team's losing streak built to a season-high six games, reporters kept pouring into the clubhouse wondering how to explain the sudden freefall.

"If we could have pinpointed [the problem], we would have fixed it," Michael Cuddyer said. "We feel like we should be in the [race], playing for a playoff berth, but we're not."

With the stars agitated, and various issues bubbling, the mood felt almost as tense as September 2005, when Kyle Lohse took a bat to manager Ron Gardenhire's door and Hunter took a swing at Justin Morneau.

The timing shouldn't come as a surprise. This is only the second hopeless September this team has had in six years.

"To be in this situation is not too comfortable," Santana said. "We're the [division] champions from last year still, and we're not playing like it. That's the bottom line."

In reality, the Twins have spent the entire season trapped on a roller coaster, with some surprising high points seemingly always followed by horrific lows.

They scored 32 runs in sweeping a doubleheader July 6 at Chicago, for example, only to lose their final two games before the All-Star break.

They swept four from Oakland after the break, and then dropped three one-run games to Detroit. Santana twirled a 17-strikeout masterpiece against Texas on Aug. 19, and they lost the next two games to Seattle.

But none of that could have prepared them for the tumble after they finished a four-game sweep at Baltimore on Aug. 26.

They were 67-63 and sitting 5 ½ games behind Cleveland, setting up a pivotal series at Jacobs Field. It didn't matter that Cleveland's and Detroit's summer slumbers had allowed the Twins to hang on the fringe of the race; they were in it.

And then the bottom really fell out.

Cleveland swept the Twins, all but eliminating their playoff chances.

On Aug. 31, when Scott Baker came three outs from a perfect game against Kansas City, it only continued the season-long tease. Cleveland steamrolled the Twins again in a three-game sweep at the Metrodome.

Then came Friday's historic collapse. The Twins scored six runs in the ninth inning but somehow blew a 10-4 lead and lost in the 13th.

They lost again Saturday and fell to 69-73. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called the past two games in Chicago the worst he'd ever seen.

All that remains is a mini-mission to finish above .500 for the sixth time in Gardenhire's six-year tenure. But beyond that? That's where the real roots of the tension lie.

The Twins have spent much of this decade feeling better about their future than their oft-exciting present. Now, that's not the case.

They've offered Hunter a three-year deal. He wants at least five. The White Sox are among the teams salivating over him, and when the Twins arrived in Chicago, they were reminded that suitors would be lined up for Hunter if he hits the market.

Santana and Joe Nathan could follow him to free agency after next season. For them, this had to be the year that management went all-in, and Santana, Nathan and Hunter all voiced frustration when the team traded Luis Castillo to the Mets on July 30.

Alexi Casilla muted some of that with the energy he brought as Castillo's replacement, but the veterans' skepticism now seems well justified.

Entering Saturday, Castillo had a .697 on-base-plus-slugging percentage for the Mets, while Casilla had posted a .590 OBP for the Twins. Throw in Casilla's penchant for making head-scratching decisions, and you can point to second base as one reason the Twins are 14-22 since Aug. 1.

Of course, the Twins also lost Mauer to another leg injury Aug. 25. When two local columnists suggested it was time to move him to third base, with one suggesting his clubhouse reputation had taken a hit for not pushing himself into the lineup, Gardenhire and Mauer both went on the defensive.

That was Monday. When Johan Santana fell to 0-5 against Cleveland that afternoon, he used his postgame media gathering to send a message to the entire team — perhaps all the way to the front office again — when he said, "We're not giving everything that we have."

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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