At one point this season, Scott Baker was 5-4 with a 4.48 ERA -- not great, but at least reasonable. Nick Blackburn won all five of his starts in May, going at least 7 innings each time and allowing three or fewer runs each time. Kevin Slowey was 7-3 with a 3.45 ERA after picking up a victory on June 8. All three of these guys have previous track records of being capable middle-to-back end of the rotation pitchers. Baker might even have a ceiling as a No. 2 starter if he can ever gain consistency. This could all just be an awfully timed three-way funk. But ...

What if these past six weeks aren't a mirage? As damaging as the trio's floundering has been to the Twins' AL Central hopes in 2010 -- all three were again shelled in their first post-All Star starts, with the Twins managing to survive Blackburn's turn only with a four-run ninth while losing the other two in frustrating fashion -- the big picture looks even more frightening if these guys have lost a lovin' feeling they can't quite regain.

Baker signed a four-year, $15.25 million extension in 2009; Blackburn signed a similar four-year, $14 million deal this spring. Slowey was presumably next in line, with only lingering questions about his health keeping the Twins from pulling the trigger. While those are hardly huge numbers in terms of where the Twins' payroll has gone, it's worth noting the Twins were clearly counting on -- or at least hoping for -- a relatively inexpensive starting pitching staff for the next few years that would allow them to pay Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and co. While other arms in the minor leagues could come up and take their place, the Twins took a calculated risk and believed they had seen enough from at least Baker and Blackburn to believe in them over the relative long haul. In other words, the master plan is loosely based around several solid seasons from at least a couple of the guys who are currently nowhere near solid. That could turn short-term grumbles into long-term headaches ... making these next 2-plus months crucial in multiple ways.


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