Part 4 of 4: Getting away from the 'Twins Way'

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2011 - 1:57 PM

Last of a four-part series: Officials of an organization that prides itself on stressing fundamentals grimaced as players forgot the basics.

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Baserunning blunders and other mental errors sent Justin Morneau (pictured) and the Twins to a 17-37 start.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune file

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This four-part series shows how the Twins have gone from a team that won six division titles in nine seasons to one that is on pace to lose 100 games. Today's is the last in the series.

It wasn't just the losing. It was the way the Twins lost.

Manager Ron Gardenhire can tolerate physical mistakes, but mental mistakes often left him fuming as the Twins fell 20 games under .500 by June 1.

Baserunning blunders. Missed signs. Rundown follies. Throwing to the wrong base. Issuing too many walks.

This sure wasn't the "Twins Way." They had a reputation for not beating themselves during their run of six division titles in nine years.

Some fans had trouble understanding Gardenhire's postgame rants about mental gaffes by Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, Trevor Plouffe and others, especially when the most obvious problem was the bullpen's ineffectiveness.

"[The mental mistakes] shouldn't happen," Gardenhire said late last month. "We're in the big leagues. It's embarrassing. Those things right there have to go away. We have to be a better baseball team than that."

General Manager Bill Smith has seen it, too.

"I don't use the term 'Twins Way,' I use the term 'Right Way,'" Smith said. "We take great pride in doing that. It's something [former manager] Tom Kelly instilled in this ballclub starting in 1987 -- that we're going to play the game the right way. We're going to do the fundamentals."

By all accounts, the Twins still put their players through as many spring training drills as any team. Scouts who watch Twins farm teams laud the continued focus shown in batting practice and infield practice before every game.

With an injury-depleted roster, the Twins have promoted 14 players from Class AAA Rochester, so Gardenhire and his coaches find themselves holding specialized tutorials -- focused on baserunning and fielding -- long before the first pitch.

But the mistakes keep mounting. Even Monday, when the Twins ran their winning streak to five games, Gardenhire counted three missed signs and collected three $100 bills in fines.

in Tuesday's 1-0 loss, Cleveland scored on an unearned run when Carlos Santana led off with a double and took third when Delmon Young misplayed the ball in the left-field corner.

"I know it's driving the coaching staff nuts, and it's been frustrating for the players that we've gotten away from doing the little things you have to do to win games," Smith said. "Sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets. And we've just been in one of those spirals."

Challenging new era

The stakes are different now.

In 2001, Kelly's last year as manager, the Twins had a $24 million payroll, or about $90 million less than the current squad makes.

They had young players -- Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, etc. -- who were fundamentally solid. When Gardenhire took over in 2002, the Twins committed the fewest errors in the majors (74). During their run of six division titles in nine years, another defining characteristic was their ability to plug in players, almost seamlessly, from their farm system as needed.

Examples include Jason Bartlett at shortstop in 2006, Casilla at second base in 2008 and Matt Tolbert at third base in 2009.

Maybe the Metrodome made it easier. The Twins knew its quirks, and if one of their new players looked overwhelmed, those moments were overshadowed by opponents fumbling away games underneath the Teflon roof.

This is the team's second season at Target Field, and there haven't been many empty seats. The payroll is much higher now, and so are expectations. Throw in all the injuries -- 11 players have gone on the disabled list -- and it's easy to understand why the remaining players have pressed too hard.

Valencia wasn't asked to carry the team when he was promoted from Rochester last June. The roster was relatively healthy, so the Twins just needed him to fill a hole.

He batted .311 with a .799 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) and made only six errors in 81 games at third base.

This year, with several other key pieces missing from the lineup, Valencia is being counted on more heavily and not playing as well. He entered Tuesday batting .219 with a .617 OPS and didn't start in the Twins' first two games in Cleveland. He also had five errors in 58 games at third.

Some of it is luck. Last year, Valencia had an abnormally high .345 batting average on balls in play, and entering Tuesday, that number was .236. That should all even out over time, but beyond the numbers, the Twins don't want Valencia to get complacent. So if Valencia has a mental lapse, particularly on the bases, Gardenhire is quick to scold him.

Major-league ready?

Plouffe got his chance last month and showed early offensive promise, batting .286 with three homers and 10 RBI in his first 10 games, but he had repeated struggles on defense. After committing only 13 errors last season in 124 games combined between Rochester and the Twins, he missed several makeable plays at shortstop.

After he made two key eighth-inning miscues that led to a May 23 loss to the Mariners, Plouffe spent most of his time on Gardenhire's bench, getting only one more start before getting sent back to Rochester last Friday.

Meanwhile, Casilla emerged from Gardenhire's doghouse and changed his season for the better. He started only one game from May 7-14, as his average sunk to .175, and came back with 24 hits in his next 65 at-bats, raising his average to .262, while playing steady defense up the middle.

Casilla's secret?

"I'm just trying not to think too much," he said.

Smith has said the goal is to produce at least one new contributor from the farm system each year. The way Plouffe, Ben Revere, Luke Hughes and Rene Tosoni struggled early this year, it was fair to wonder if the Twins had anybody in the minors who could help.

But keep in mind, the same thing could have been said last year, until Valencia emerged over the summer.

Maybe it's Anthony Swarzak's turn. He looked impressive in two starts while Francisco Liriano was on the disabled list. Or maybe it will be Revere, who is starting to show why he was a .328 hitter in the minor leagues coming into the year.

Revere has run into some outs on the bases, but the Twins love his energy.

"Sometimes as a young player with speed, you try to outrun things," Gardenhire said. "You have to play with your head, and that's something that all young players have to learn."

After falling to 17-37, the Twins have started making up ground on first-place Cleveland, and they look forward to getting Joe Mauer and others back soon from the DL. Winning the division would take another miracle, but at the very least, the Twins must continue playing better baseball over the season's final four months.

Their reputation is at stake.

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