Ugly start is testing the Twins' chemistry and character

The Twins have been a lead-by-example bunch, but so far this year, that approach hasn't worked.

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Michael Cuddyer, right, is one of the Twins’ leaders, but he’s having a subpar season. “If the veterans are struggling, too, it is hard for them to be the rah-rah guys,’’ manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

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The Twins haven't just flopped. It's been a magnificent flop.

They entered the season with a $113 million payroll and sky-high expectations but have the worst record in baseball through 35 games.

Their minus-74 run differential is the worst in baseball -- Houston is next at minus-43. They have scored five or more runs in only seven games, and just hit their first three-run homer of the season on Wednesday when Jason Kubel connected against Detroit.

Trying times, indeed. Times that will test a team's chemistry and challenge its character. The Twins open a three-game series against Toronto on Friday wondering how to climb back to relevancy in the AL Central.

"It's tested big time,'' outfielder Michael Cuddyer said of the team's chemistry. "That's one thing in the 10 years I have been here, that I've never seen tested because we have always had it. Always had guys who are pulling for each other.

"And we are pulling for each other in here.''

Twins veterans have the additional challenge of keeping things from unraveling within the clubhouse.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said after Wednesday's 9-7 loss to the Tigers that veteran leadership is key at such a critical stage of the season.

"But if the veterans are struggling, too, it is hard for them to be the rah-rah guys,'' Gardenhire said.

For example, first baseman Justin Morneau is batting .214 with one home run. Can leaders lead when they aren't producing?

"Obviously it gives you a little more credibility if you're hitting .300 than .200,'' Morneau said. "At the same time the respect should be there.''

Trying to stay loose

Torii Hunter once showered with his bat. Matthew LeCroy once ate a cockroach. Doug Mientkiewicz would sit on a lucky spot on the dugout floor in hopes of sparking a rally. Mike Redmond would take "the naked walk'' through the clubhouse.

The Twins of recent years kept loose -- and fought off prolonged losing streaks.

"We don't have those characters on [this] team,'' Cuddyer said. "We don't have Nick Punto with the green thong. We don't have some of the other stuff. And you can't make people be like that.''

What about fiery players?

"I don't think we've had [fiery] players in the 10 years I've been here,'' Cuddyer said.

The Twins have been successful with their characters and without fiery ones. In 2006, they were 12 games back on July 13 and came back to win the AL Central on the final day of the regular season.

Can players motivate -- or agitate -- a team into winning?

Twins broadcaster Jack Morris, who played in the postseason with the Tigers, Twins and Blue Jays, said every winning team he was on had a couple of players who wouldn't mince words with teammates. He doesn't see that now.

"It's not just this organization,'' he said. "Guys are just quieter. They are afraid to step out of bounds and challenge a teammate.''

Morris said if a team is like a family, it should be easy to chew out your brother.

"There's nothing wrong with that,'' he said. "You do that inside. Don't let you or I see it, but you know where everyone stands.''

Cuddyer and Morneau generally are regarded as key clubhouse guys. Joe Nathan and Carl Pavano have similar status among the pitchers.

The Twins' best, and highest-paid, player is catcher Joe Mauer. Anyone who has met Mauer, the $184 million man, knows he's not an alpha personality. And he hasn't played since April 12 because of leg weakness.

The disaster of 2005

The Twins were coming off their third consecutive division title in 2005 but slumped to a 83-79 record and third-place finish in the AL Central. Hunter broke an ankle while leaping for a ball during a July game at Boston and missed the rest of the season.

Tempers flared late in the season. Kyle Lohse took a bat to Gardenhire's office door. Hunter threw a punch at Morneau, missed and hit Punto instead. A not-too-distant example of how bad the Twins clubhouse can get.

There has been no public finger-pointing or known disagreements between teammates this year. Cuddyer quickly pointed out that the disaster of 2005 came after six frustrating months.

"We still have time to right things before we get into that situation,'' he said.

Morneau prefers to embrace 2006, when the Twins fell behind early, got hot in July and believed they were unbeatable.

"I went through '05. I've been through it before,'' Morneau said. "I've been miserable. I'm not going to go to that place again.

"I'm going to show up every day expecting myself to do well and believing it is going to turn around. I think you can learn a lot by leading by example. Guys can look at that and say, 'Everything is going to be OK.'''

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