Patrick Reusse: Maligned Twins rotation is getting the job done

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2011 - 12:13 AM

The ERA of the starting pitchers for the 2011 last-place Twins isn't much higher than it was for the 2010 first-place Twins.

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Twins lefthander Francisco Liriano pitched well in his most recent start, giving up two runs in six innings at Arizona, but he left with a no-decision in a 3-2 loss.

Photo: Matt York, Associated Press - Ap

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The Twins are 50 games into the season and three times in team history the record trailed the current 17-33. They were 12-38 in 1982, and 15-35 in both 1981 and 1995.

Traditionally, there's no ingredient more important for a team striving to be truly awful than poor starting pitching. That's what has made it a task for these Twins to have the worst record in the major leagues:

They have done it with starting pitching that is better than many observers anticipated.

The argument against that theory would be substandard efforts from Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano, the projected Nos. 1 and 2 starters in the rotation.

Pavano has been subject to clunkers even in his best seasons. He has had four of those in 10 starts so far -- too many -- but there have been signs lately that he's still a worthy option every five days.

Liriano had the no-hitter and other hints in May that he was waking up, before missing Saturday night's start because of a sore shoulder.

The sight of Pavano's ERA at 5.28 and Liriano's at 5.73 might make the theory on the Twins' starters a tough sell. The reverse is that Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker have been far better than expected.

A sizable portion of the media and Twins' public couldn't figure out what manager Ron Gardenhire was doing when he declared Blackburn to be one of his starters early in spring training. Blackburn is now 6-for-10 in quality starts, with a 4-4 record and a 3.20 ERA.

Gardenhire waited longer to declare Baker as his fifth starter, over Kevin Slowey. This was not a popular move, either, particularly with Slowey. Baker has been satisfactory: five of 10 quality starts, 2-3 and a 3.65 ERA.

The X factor has been Brian Duensing. The lefty was doing fine until running into a rain delay after two innings in Boston on May 7, and then a two-inning relief appearance three days later. He went seven solid innings his last time out and is 5-for-9 in quality starts.

Those five have made 48 of the 50 starts. Anthony Swarzak made his second spot start as Liriano's fill-in on Saturday. He had a no-hitter vs. the Los Angeles Angels for seven innings and worked eight scoreless.

The punchless Twins finally scored in the 10th for a 1-0 victory -- only the second in 13 games at Target Field dating to April 27.

Those eight blanks put the Twins at a 4.38 ERA for starters. In 2010, when the Twins won the AL Central at 94-68, the ERA for starters was 4.17.

Another number endorses the idea that the least of the Twins' problems is starting pitching: Over the past 11 games, the starters have a 2.67 ERA and the Twins are 5-6.

The Twins bullpen also managed two clean innings Saturday -- the ninth from Matt Capps and the 10th from Alex Burnett. That put the ERA for the bullpen at 5.57.

The Twins' ERA in the bullpen was 3.49 last season. And it was 3.87 in both 2008 and '09, 3.80 in 2007 and 2.91 in 2006.

There's the reason that anyone bringing up the Twins' grand comeback in '06 and trying to relate it to this season's predicament is beyond deluded. The main reason the Twins were able to sustain a 71-33 kick to the finish in 2006 was a bullpen that said:

"Give us a lead after six and the ballgame's over."

Five years later, the bullpen's message through 50 games has been exactly the opposite. Just ask Baker.

On Friday night, Baker became the first starter in 13 years to pitch at least seven scoreless innings, leave with a lead of at least five runs and then watch his team get beat.

The Twins bullpen has coughed up eight leads in the eighth inning or later. That is a season's worth, even for non-contending teams.

The next man up for this bullpen will be veteran lefthander Chuck James, another of the dozen minor league free agents signed during the winter with the idea they would reinforce Class AAA Rochester.

It's not easy for a team with respectable starting pitching to be 14 1/2 games behind before Memorial Day. It takes a shaky bullpen, subpar fielding and low run production, and the Twins -- to their regret -- still have all three.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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