Souhan: There's new faith in the Twins, and it starts on the ground floor

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2011 - 11:44 AM

They have whittled the Central gap from last place and expect key stars back soon, making the new mindset, "Hey, we can do this.''

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Twins runner Ben Revere is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after he scored a run in the first inning.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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An old Russian saying suggests that "a pessimist is a well-informed optimist."

Luckily, we live in America, where a little sunshine and a two-week burst of competence can prompt Twins fans to contemplate playoff matchups.

Facts and numbers align themselves against the Twins like speed bumps and detour signs. They're still a last-place team, still own the worst record in the American League, still trail the division leaders by nine games, still find themselves fielding a bunch of players who had trouble winning games even in the minors, still employ a bunch of stars who have done more for Fort Myers' economy than the big-league club's winning percentage.

Logic dictates pessimism, but there is something vaguely familiar about the atmosphere around the Twins these days. Even at 26-39, a record that could get an unaccomplished manager fired, the Twins suddenly look like a growth stock.

On June 1, they were 16.5 games out of first place. By the afternoon of June 12, they had cut the lead to nine.

On June 1, they didn't know when they'd see Joe Mauer again. Later this week, he could be in the everyday lineup.

On June 1, Francisco Liriano's no-hitter in Chicago stood out like a penlight in a storm cellar. Sunday, at Target Field, Liriano pitched far more effectively and efficiently than he did that night in Chicago, handcuffing the defending AL champs and almost becoming the answer to a trivia question.

Has anyone else ever lowered their ERA below 5.00 by pitching their second no-hitter of the season in June?

"All you want to do is come to the ballpark and feel like you have a chance, and we're coming to the ballpark with a lot of positive flow out there in the clubhouse,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's really not a lot of different people, but it's a positive atmosphere where people are saying, 'Hey, we can do this.'

"A couple of weeks ago it was, 'How are we going to screw this one up?' That's what's changed, the atmosphere on the bench."

Gardenhire offered an example of his team's rallying cries this weekend. They cannot be printed here. "It's the same stuff we used to say all the time," Gardenhire said.

Apparently, baseball is like standup comedy. Profanity is a bleeping prerequisite for success.

Even after Liriano beat the Rangers, 6-1, on Sunday, no statistician would give the Twins a snowball's chance in June of making the playoffs. Then again, the Twins play in a state where you can actually get hit by a snowball in June.

The Internet site Coolstandings.com gives them a 0.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Not 7 percent, but .7 percent, or about the same chance of you missing all the potholes on your morning commute through downtown Minneapolis.

There are reasons for the hopeful to hope, though. The Twins have won nine of their past 11, including three of four against Texas. They'll play 15 more home games than road games the rest of the way. Liriano has shown signs that he can become the legitimate ace they've lacked since Johan Santana left.

The starting rotation has dominated lately, compiling an ERA of 1.96 since June 2, and Scott Baker and Liriano both bid for no-hitters over the weekend. The rotation's efficiency has protected a bullpen that could soon add Joe Nathan and Glen Perkins. Denard Span, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome and Jason Kubel all could return from injuries this week.

This is a team that overcame dire circumstances in 2003, '06, '08 and '09 to win the division or force a playoff, and that surged past the White Sox late last season.

Logic and statistics demur, but if logic and statistics dictated the outcome of every season, sports wouldn't be so fascinating.

"The guys who are coming back are very professional guys," Gardenhire said of the convalescing. "My only concern is, I don't want to lose that edge, of having guys run around and put pressure on the other team.

"That's my biggest concern. When we get our boppers back, I want to keep that edge, of putting pressure on them and not just waiting for three-run homers. I want everybody to be a part of it.

"I really like that. I like to be able to put things on, steal, and run. That's so much fun. That's what we talked about during the winter, and you're seeing it now.''

For two months, the 2011 Twins bid to become the most disappointing and overpaid team in franchise history. Today, they're the most hopeful last-place team in baseball.

The White Sox loom, Mauer is checking out flights, Liriano's slider is refracting, and the temperature might stay above 50 all week. Two weeks after their hull scraped sand, the Twins have made optimists, and the well-informed, curious.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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