This smells of late '90s repeat, minus the Dome

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 26, 2012 - 7:39 AM

This is the same vibe that gripped the Twins from 1993 through 2000.

Liam Hendriks, Wednesday night’s Twins starter, took his lumps, giving up seven runs and nine hits in four innings against the Red Sox. The Twins went into the game with a team ERA of 5.69.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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This is the same vibe that gripped the Twins from 1993 through 2000. It is harder to take this time because of the magnificent surroundings in which the Twins are now housed, and that they went through a decade in which the sporting public came to believe reaching the playoffs was a routine task.

The Twins had those two World Series victories in 1987 and 1991, but they had waited since 1970 for a postseason appearance. These were glorious opportunities and not something the fans took for granted.

Plus, the Twins still were playing in a plastic stadium built for football, so it was a simple task to go back to being soft-core baseball fans.

The Twins followed the '91 Series with a team that went 90-72 and sold 2,482,428 tickets in 1992. The team ERA was 3.70, with an effective starting rotation that included John Smiley, Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani.

A year later, Smiley was gone, Erickson was 8-19 with a 5.40 ERA and the Twins went 71-91. It's a surprise to look back and find they sold 2,048,673 tickets in 1993.

That was it, though. The players went on strike Aug. 11, 1994. Minnesotans hardly noticed. The Twins were 53-60 and 14 games behind in the new AL Central, and the Vikings were in training camp with their new quarterback, Warren Moon.

The Twins' ERA went from 4.71 to 5.68 in 1994. This was followed by ERAs of 5.76, 5.28, 5.00, 4.75, 5.00 and 5.14 from 1995 to 2000.

This was the heart of the game's steroids era, but it's doubtful that starters such as Frankie Rodriguez, Scott Aldred, Rich Robertson, Sean Bergman and Carlos Pulido would have succeeded even if the hitters weren't using those extra vitamins.

The Twins bottomed out at 1,057,667 tickets sold in 2000. There was a hopelessness built on an eight-season losing streak, and a streak built on often-hopeless starting pitching.

The Twins had 20 pitchers in those eight losing seasons that made 14 or more starts with ERAs over 5.00. In 1999, LaTroy Hawkins made 33 starts and finished with a 6.66 ERA. In 2000, Bergman was given 14 starts before being released with a 9.66 ERA.

It wasn't until Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays gave the Twins three starters with over 220 innings and ERAs between 3.16 and 4.32 that the Twins ended the losing streak with an 85-77 record in 2001.

The six AL Central titles followed over the next nine years. Twins fans started to say, "It doesn't take much to win the Central," and groused over postseason failure that includes an active 12-game losing streak.

Guess what?

Next time the Twins reach the postseason, even if it's a one-and-done in Bud Selig's wacky wild-card round, there will be more appreciation -- because it's going to be a while.

The Twins' pitching went from fifth in the American League with a 3.95 ERA in winning 94 games in 2010, to 13th with a 4.58 ERA in winning 63 games in 2011.

They didn't get a good year from a starter other than Scott Baker, and he made only 21 starts due to a bad right elbow. He's out of the picture now after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Woeful as the starting pitching was from 1995 through 2000, the Twins had Radke to provide competence. They don't have anyone that capable at the moment.

Carl Pavano comes the closest, and he's now 36 and not what he was a couple of years ago. The rest of the rotation is Nick Blackburn, Jason Marquis and big-league novice Liam Hendriks.

Frankie Liriano is on temporary leave as he dazzles observers in bullpen sessions. He will return to the mound in Anaheim on Tuesday, to continue his quest to become the most disappointing pitcher in 52 seasons of Twins baseball.

Wednesday night, Boston completed a three-game sweep with a 7-6 victory that put the Twins' ERA at 5.76. Hendriks was pounded for all seven runs in four innings, and the starters now have a 7.09 ERA and a 2-11 record.

A team without starting pitching is doomed. The Twins showed that from 1993 through 2000, and the fear has to be that this is only Year 2 of what could be another extended cycle of defeat.

But, hey, the ballpark's nice.

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

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