Phil Miller covered three seasons of Twins baseball, but that was at a different ballpark for a different newspaper. Now Miller returns to the baseball beat after joining the Star Tribune as the Gopher football writer in 2010, and he won't miss the dingy dome for a minute. In addition to the Twins and Gophers, Miller covered the Utah Jazz and the NBA for six years at The Salt Lake Tribune.
When Justin Morneau speaks, people listen because he usually brings the unvarnished truth. The Twins have scored five runs combined over the past six games -- all losses, at Target Field.
They are 21 games under .500 for the first time since 2000.
Morneau was one of the first players by his locker when the media entered the clubhouse after Friday's 8-1 loss to Detroit.
"I’ve never been a part of anything like this," he said. "Definitely not going to get used to it. ... We need to find a way to get ourselves out of it and finish the year strong, not just be satisfied with looking toward next year.
"We still have a month left in the season, and guys are fighting for jobs next year, guys are trying to prove that they belong, and there’s a lot of stuff that can be done this year. When you start looking toward next year, that’s when you get in trouble. We still have a lot of games left. We’ve gotta finish strong."
Does he feel like the effort's there?
"Oh, definitely," Morneau said. "I think we’ve done more work this year than we’ve done in a long time. With all the young guys here, we're having [early defensive workouts] pretty much every day, early hitting, it’s definitely not from a lack of effort.
"If you look around, you don’t see too many teams that have four rookies in the starting lineup; it’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality. It’s all part of the game. It’s hard to win when everyone’s trying to learn. That’s not a reason for [the losing]. Like I said, the guys in the middle [of the order] have to be better, and the guys that are supposed to get it done need to get it done."
How can they turn it around for the final 31 games?
"I need to play the way I’m capable of playing; that’s the first thing," Morneau said. "It’s just gotta be simple. Getting guys over, getting guys in, stealing a base when we need to, take the extra base, go from first to third. All the little things that good teams do. Not giving too many outs.
"You give a major league team 28 outs, you’ve got a chance, but when you give them 29-30, it’s hard. Good teams will take advantage of that."
Morneau, who is batting .219 with four homers and 29 RBI, said it's natural for guys to put too much pressure on themselves during stretches like this.
"I think when the flood gates open, it’s going to be a lot of fun, but we’ve just gotta simplify it," he said. "Instead of trying to get everybody in, we’ve gotta make sure we get one guy in. When we get a runner on third with less than two outs, we’ve gotta make sure we get that ball to the outfield in the air.
"Instead of trying to do more, we’ve gotta try to do less."
Saturday's a good day to try a new approach. Justin Verlander will be on the mound for Detroit. What do the Twins have to lose?
The Twins are 6-5 on this key 12-game homestand, and Sunday's series finale against the Tigers is another big one.
On their flight to Texas, the Twins will either be five or seven games behind Detroit.
Francisco Liriano (6-7, 4.56 ERA) said he'll try to treat it like any other start, but the Twins always worry about him putting too much pressure on himself.
The Tigers counter with righthander Rick Porcello (9-6, 4.76 ERA), who has two wins against the Twins already this season (May 10 and June 1) and enters this one riding a three-game winning streak.
* The Twins had lost 11 straight against Detroit (including all seven games this year) before Saturday.
* Ben Revere stole his 14th base. He leads all MLB rookies.
* Glen Perkins has allowed one earned run in his past 15 appearances, racking up 17 strikeouts in 13 innings.
* Joe Nathan, who needs just one save to tie Rick Aguilera's Twins record (254), has posted a 1.59 ERA in 12 games since returning from the DL.
Hi guys, it's Star Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno here -- with Joe busy working on a plethora of exciting future Twins projects, he's given me the reins to take this blog for a spin some for this next series with the Royals ... and I'm more than happy to help drive this ship. Follow me on Twitter (@AmeliaRayno ) for more updates!!
Imagine your Late-March Self. The depression you felt over the sweep to the Yankees in the divisional round had lost some of its bite -- this was a new, promising year. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer would be together again, the lineup appeared stronger than ever, there was promising 8th-inning man to set up Joe Nathan in Matt Capps, and now this new hotshot from Japan to bolster the middle infield. Things looked pretty great -- or at least pretty good.
Now imagine your Angry June Self is kind of a jerk, and goes back and tells your Naive March Self this: "OK, Mauer's only going to be able to play nine games before leg weakness completely kicks him out of the game for more than two months. Then right around the time he comes back, Morneau's gonna hafta leave because of wrist problems and a herniated disc in his neck. That Nishioka guy? He'll be HUGELY ineffective for the first half of the season. Nathan will stop being solid, lose his closer role and then go down with a right flexor muscle strain. New closer Capps will implode when you need him most and you'll find you have a shaky-at-best bullpen around him. Oh yeah, and you'll also lose Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Jim Thome for significant stretches on top of all the other injuries ... leaving the team with a band of mostly rookies, call-ups and out-of-place pieces (Cuddyer playing every position he can find a glove for).
Death sentence, your poor Naive March Self thinks, right?
Given the facts, it surely looks like an on-paper meltdown. And for the first couple of months, it seemed to be just that. On June 1, the Twins had a record of 17-37, and were in the Central basement.
But coming into the post-ASB series against the woeful Kansas City Royals, your Tempered Mid-July Self instead finds the embattled Twins just 6.5 games out of the lead -- with a sure opportunity to shrink that number with the next 12 games against division rivals.
How have they done it? Well, they've gotten some unlikely production from inexperienced players. They've had some pretty good starting pitching -- good enough through June and early July to make the reaction to the bullpen issues a dull roar rather than a massive collective panic. The rest of the Central has been less-than-dominant. And the Twins have seen several key things (Mauer's offense, Nishi's O and D, Nathan's resurgence) start to click in early July.
The big question mark now is whether they can take this surprising flop of fate and turn it into a full-blown miracle. That test starts immediately. The Twins would need to make a big push in the next 12 games, when they could make up distance quickly.
They start off the second half perhaps stronger (again, on paper) already. Delmon Young is back after missing 14 games with his second injury of the year. Young was hitting .321 in the previous 21 games before he left, and has hit .290 with three doubles and two home runs in nine games at Rochester. Meanwhile, the Twins also called up hot-hitting Trevor Plouffe, who played all over the infield during his last minor-league stint, and is batting .313 with 15 homers and 33 RBI in 51 games with Rochester.
The Twins still have not addressed their bullpen needs, and it remains to be seen whether they will. Some are calling for Rochester's Chuck James, who has just given up one hit in five innings, but the organization is not giving any hints as to an immediate call-up -- perhaps they'd consider it if the bad gets worse in the first few games back.
One thing is for sure. Your Post-ASB Self is much more tested and mature than your Naive March Self, much less angry than your Bitter Early-June Self, if more constantly anxiety-ridden than any of your 2010 Selves. What will your August Self look like? You might have an idea after these next 12 games.
There's been a mutiny in the press box on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Target Field. Sports reporter Amelia Rayno (@AmeliaRayno) and Strib intern Alex Prewitt (@Alex_Prewitt) have hijacked Joe's Around the Majors blog and will be taking it over for today's 12:10 game against the Rays.
MAUER OFF TODAY, AT 1B TOMORROW
Joe Mauer will get today off after experiencing some general soreness in his shoulder following yesterday’s 3-2 win over the Rays, but will start at first base tomorrow night when the Twins travel to Chicago for a four-game series with the White Sox.
"I want to do anything I can to help the team," said Mauer, who has talked to Michael Cuddyer and some other Twins for tips. "Obviously for me personally, it’s going to be a grind the rest of the way, physically. So if this allows me to take a day from behind the plate and give your body a little break, it’ll be a good thing."
Mauer hasn’t played first in 10 years, but manager Ron Gardenhire says Mauer’s fundamentals are looking good.
“We won’t really know until we get him over there and see, but honestly he’s pretty fluid over there,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got soft hands, he moves around there pretty well, all the fundamental parts of it.”
BAKER COULD MISS NEXT START
Scott Baker left yesterday's start after the fifth inning with a mild right elbow strain and will get an MRI today. Gardenhire's "gut feeling" is that Baker will miss his next scheduled start on Sunday against Chicago. That would give Baker the All-Star Break to recover.
“There’s a pretty good chance of that,” said Gardenhire, who hasn’t discussed the matter yet with the trainers. “Bake says he feels pretty good today, but there’s a pretty good chance that we give him those days and then the All-Star Break days. We’ll all feel a little bit better about it letting him get through that.”
In the event that Baker missed the series-finale against the White Sox, Anthony Swarzak will get the start. Swarzak (1-2, 3.94 ERA) has thrown over 90 pitches four times this season, most recently in a six-inning relief appearance against Texas on June 10. His last start came in a 8-2 win over Kansas City on June 2. He gave up seven hits and two runs in six innings then. According to Gardenhire, Swarzak is “100-pitch ready.”
CAPPS WILL ‘BE FINE’
After being removed from save situations in consecutive appearances, Matt Capps could get a little rest this afternoon, according to Gardenhire. Capps gave up a first-pitch homer to B.J. Upton that brought the Rays within one run, and left to boos with two outs after walking Kelly Shoppach. Lefty Glen Perkins came on and got the save for the second time in three games.
“I know he's frustrated, so we'll see what we can do,” Gardenhire said. “Cappy's going to be fine, I know that, throwing the ball. Our big concern, as we talked about last night, is getting him back to feeling good about himself and then throwing the ball good too.”
The Twins are looking for its first sweep of an AL East opponent since Aug. 23-26, 2007 against the Orioles, but first they'll have to get by starter Wade Davis and Rays, who Minnesota hasn't swept at home in six years. The right-hander has a 1.80 ERA in his past three starts and has already beaten Minnesota twice this season, allowing three runs in 13.2 innings.
The Twins will send Francisco Liriano to the mound. The lefty has a 2.89 ERA over his past seven starts with 47 strikeouts in 43.2 innings but is 1-3 with a 8.20 ERA in four starts against AL East foes this season and gave up six hits and seven runs in 3.0 innings versus the Rays on April 27.
PLOUFFE HOT IN ROCHESTER
Trevor Plouffe had a big day at AAA Rochester yesterday, swatting three homers in the doubleheader. He now has 15 home runs in 45 games for the Red Wings this season and started the nightcap at first base, a move that Gardenhire told Rochester to make.
“I was the one who called and told to put him at first base,” Gardenhire said. “I’m looking for all kinds of options. I told him to keep playing first base until we call.”
Gardenhire’s problem will be finding space on the roster for Plouffe. If he makes a move, he said it will likely be a catcher who will head back to Rochester.
Position-wise, Gardenhire said that Plouffe could fit in at first base with the Twins, where he played during a spring training game, or in the outfield. Red Wings manager Tom Nieto told Gardenhire that Nieto “wouldn’t have any problem putting him in the outfield in a big-league game right now.”
Center fielder Ben Revere was named the American League Co-Rookie of the Month for June along with Oakland's Jemile Weeks after batting .294 (30-for-102) with 14 runs, nine RBI, four doubles, one triple and seven stolen bases in 25 games. Revere had 11 multi-hit games in the month and led all rookies in hits, runs and stolen bases. He's the third Twin to win the award after Francisco Liriano (June and July 2006) and Boof Bonser (Sept. 2006).
1. Damon, DH
2. Zobrist, RF
3. Longoria, 3B
4. Upton, CF
5. Rodriguez, 2B
6. Kotchman, 1B
7. Ruggiano, LF
8. Shoppach, C
9. Johnson, SS
Starting pitcher: RH Wade Davis (7-6, 4.20 ERA)
1. Revere, CF
2. Casilla, 2B
3. Cuddyer, 1B
4. Thome, DH
5. Valencia, 3B
6. Tosoni, LF
7. Repko, RF
8. Rivera, C
9. Nishioka, SS
Starting pitcher: LH Francisco Liriano (5-7, 4.76 ERA)
Target Field. First pitch: 12:10 p.m. TV: FSN. Twins Radio Network
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