Jim Souhan: Twins in uncharted waters

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 11:45 AM

The 2011 Twins can't even measure up to the famed 2006 Piranhas, but they have found a new way to win.

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Twins second baseman Alexi Casilla completed a double play in the fourth inning Thursday despite Carlos Quentin's barrel-roll slide.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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In 2006, Ozzie Guillen called the Twins' smaller, bunt-and-run-style players "Piranhas." A legend was born. Or at least a bunch of T-shirts.

That lineup featured an MVP in the cleanup spot, a batting champ batting third and an All-Star center fielder with power batting fifth.

Three Twins hit 24 or more homers and drove in 98 or more runs.

If that team could be described as "Piranhas," what should we call the 2011 Twins, who have used Denard Span and Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the third spot and batted Brian Dinkelman seventh?

"They are the little sardinas," Guillen said. "The sardines. You see a bunch of midgets out there. They can play. That kid who is the leadoff guy [Ben Revere]? Pretty good."

Thursday afternoon, the Twins beat Guillen's White Sox 1-0. The Twins have won 11 of their past 13 games with a lineup filled with guys who aren't tall enough to ride the rollercoaster at Valleyfair.

"We are sharks," said Alexi Casilla.

"Sharks?" said Delmon Young from the next locker. "Maybe remora fish. They hang around the sharks.

"We're a bunch of vultures, scavengers, this year."

Thursday, Nishioka returned to the lineup. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire didn't want to disturb Revere and Casilla, and he knew that batting Nishioka ninth would create a lineup with Jason Repko batting seventh, so Gardenhire slid Nishioka into the third spot, the traditional home of a team's best hitter.

Nishioka went 1-for-4 with an infield single. Today, Gardenhire could consider keeping Nishioka at No. 3 and batting Joe Mauer in the cleanup spot. If that happens, a big-league team with playoff hopes on June 17 would field a lineup in which the top four hitters have produced a total of 23 RBI.

In 2006, the Twins were loaded with talent, and played the best baseball in franchise history after mid-June.

The 2011 Twins are winning with lineups that make you wish steroids were legal. Thursday, their lineup entered the game with 18 homers, or three fewer than Curtis Granderson. They have no one with 30 RBI, or half Adrian Gonzalez's total. They are about to be joined by Mauer, whose $23 million salary is more than what every player in the Thursday lineup makes, combined.

"That's not a power-filled lineup, right there," Span said. "I batted third before I got hurt, so it's not your ideal major league lineup. That's more of a Low-A batting order, with the Punch-and-Judy hitters in the cleanup spots. It's definitely different than in past years."

That 2006 team featured two of the most dominant starting pitchers in the game, in Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, and an All-Star closer in his prime in Joe Nathan.

Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer manned the middle of the batting order, and veteran Luis Castillo hit leadoff.

The 2011 lineup can't compare, but a couple of Twins said the feeling around the team can.

"It kind of reminds you of that run we had in '06," Cuddyer said. "You felt like we were going to win. All that is, is confidence."

Said Span: "The biggest thing I've noticed from the bench is that we're making things happen. We're playing loose, man. We have the mentality that we should just go out there and put everything on the line.

"I can't wait to get back out there, to be honest."

There is only one reason these people are smiling and Guillen is dispensing updated nicknames.

When your pitching dominates, suddenly every bunt single or sacrifice becomes meaningful.

The Twins won 1-0 Thursday because of Cuddyer's home run, not because of any small-ball approach. And they won 1-0 because Nick Blackburn continued the Twins' pitching dominance in June.

Since June 2, Twins starting pitchers have compiled an ERA of 1.79, with 15 walks and 56 strikeouts. The starter has lasted at least eight innings in four games in a row, and Blackburn probably could have finished Thursday's game.

The starters' dominance has lessened the exposure of an overmatched bullpen and has rewarded the lineup's slap-and-sprint approach.

For all of the excitement caused by Ben Revere and the Raiders (for the young, that's a very old-school rock-n-roll reference), the Twins rank 26th out of 30 teams in runs scored.

They will play their next six games against the teams ranked 29th and 30th, San Francisco and San Diego.

Young had it right. The Twins' position players are remoras, and the starting pitchers are sharks. Speed, bunting and enthusiasm earn you a nickname only if your rotation makes opponents look like the inept 1909 Washington Senators.

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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