Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.

Section 219: Finally the right combinations

Posted by: Howard Sinker under Ron Gardenhire, Twins management, Twins offense, Twins pitching Updated: June 13, 2011 - 9:27 AM

Fans get cranky and that's fine, because they want their team to play well all the time. You know, every moment of every game. I don't just want my team to win. I want them to win 12-0. I don't just want to have a chance at the playoffs. I want my team to bring home the biggest trophy. If a player is struggling, get rid of him. Every fan of a traditionally successful team has a little bit of Steinbrenner in them. Some have a lot.

Joe Mauer's health, a shuffling of inept performers and an incredibly awful two months of baseball turned the snark level directed toward the Twins to an all-time high. And not without reason, OK. Some stuff was really that bad.

However, it's now fine if those who fumed and fussed drop their anger right now and begin to wonder what might happen over these next few months.

This weekend, Gardy used line-ups that included a majority of guys you could have seen earlier this season for $6.50 in Rochester. There were five of them in the starting lineup on Saturday and four, plus reliever Alex Burnett, on Sunday. The result: Two one-sided victories that gave the Twins three of four against defending American League champion Texas and moved them within nine games of first place in the AL Central.

The White Sox are coming to town and the leapfrogging could begin this week.

I'm not saying to put away money for postseason tickets as much as I'm suggesting that we put away the snark guns for a while and enjoy what's happening. Anyone who witnessed the third-inning dive of Ben Revere on Saturday saw one of the best defensive plays they'll ever see, just two innings after Revere's running catch-and-fence smack that was also a first-rate play. Score one more for the notion that Revere's range makes him a worthy candidate for almost everyday play even when the Twins are closer to full health.

And some veterans are stepping up. In the 10 games since the Twins stopped stinking -- the current 9-2 run against the Royals, Cleveland and Texas -- Michael Cuddyer has four home runs, a .325 batting average and a 1.129 on base-plus-slugging percentage. He also has 13 RBI in those games (including eight against the Rangers), which means it's no longer cool to carry on the RBI-pace jokes that we were telling for the first month or so of the season.

Alexi Casilla's play has made me feel a bit guilty about rescinding my preseason faith in his ability to play on a daily basis. Delmon Young, promoted to batting clean-up recently,  went 8-for-16 against Texas -- and may be feeling Revere's heat. And if you give Francisco Liriano the benefit of deleting his sick-night start against Detroit, he's given up only four earned runs in 35 innings since May 1. (Keep him healthy please, Andy.)

And after much trial and too many errors, it looks like the correct batch of young players has been promoted from Rochester. Burnett has recaptured the stuff that made him so valuable for the first couple of months in 2010. Luke Hughes can play throughout the infield and hit a bit. Rene Rivera handles pitchers in a way that will make the Butera vs. Rivera choice more difficult than imagined when Mauer returns. Brian Dinkelman has a name that fans like to yell.

I'll refrain from any more bullpen kudos because I'm not sure I believe what I'm seeing.

I'm not entirely sure how Gardy decides when the time is right to put Dinkelman in the lineup or where he should play Hughes on a given day, but he's been making the right moves -- and it's nice to see him have options on a daily basis (even if they're not the options we imagined at the start of the season) rather than putting down a name because he has no choice. Those who think Gardy has been part of the problem this year are just wrong. I'm sure there was no joy in calling out some of his players when things were really bad, but it was an unusual time and maybe some messages had to be delivered in an uncomfortable way.

The next challenge for him will be how to integrate the returning veterans into the lineup. Mauer is easy. He catches as much as possible. But the eventual returns of Jim Thome and Jason Kubel will pose good daily questions about the outfield/DH part of the lineup. And will Tsuyoshi Nishioka's return mean the end of Casilla's run at shortstop? Will Nishioka come back as a starter when he comes back, or will he watch for a spell if the current group continues playing as it has been?

The expectations to make the right choices will be greater when Gardy has the veterans back. If the current roster can move up 7 1/2 games in 12 days, there's no limit on what a healthier crew with more credentials can accomplish, right?

And for most of the next 5 1/2 weeks -- save for the road trip to San Francisco and Milwaukee, which is 25-9 at home -- the Twins have an extremely manageable schedule.

Their goal for that stretch should be to get in position so that the series afterward, the four games with Detroit from July 21-24 at Target Field, will be so big that even the biggest skeptics will be looking hard for tickets.

 

 

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