It seems there's been a trend for the past few months: Just when the Twins appear to be clicking, they take a hit. At the end of the first series of the second half -- in which the home team took three of four from Kansas City in winning their fifth consecutive series -- the pattern continued.
Following a buoyant 4-3 victory over the Royals in which Jim Thome crushed his 596th home run -- a Target Field record 490-foot blast that gave the Twins a lead that would stick -- the media filed into an ailing Ron Gardenhire's office and learned of the latest blow. Scott Baker easily the team's best starter this season -- would be put on the disabled list. Baker told his manager he didn't feel his strained elbow will be ready to go Monday.
With the magnitude of the Cleveland series ahead, the timing was critical. Without Baker, the team sends spot starter Anthony Swarzak and rookie Scott Diamond -- who was added to the 40-man roster after the game Sunday -- to the mound for the first two games of a huge series with the Indians, who are tied with Detroit for the AL Central lead.
Fortunately for the Twins, another trend is emerging. Despite getting stung with a slew of injuries, the team has managed to overcome all of them in June and July, taking a greatly depleted roster and going on a run that made up 11 games, leaving them within five of the Central lead.
"Our guys have been great," Thome said. "Our young guys have stepped up. Our veterans have stepped up. I think the thing is with our club, we're getting somebody every other day to be big -- and that's what you've got to have."
In Sunday's game, he was that guy. Saturday, it was Michael Cuddyer, with some long-ball help from backup catcher Drew Butera. Two days earlier, the heroes were newly activated Delmon Young and Trevor Plouffe. Rookies Luke Hughes and Rene Tosoni and young third baseman Danny Valencia have come up with some big hits in recent weeks.
Such production is something the Twins organization has had for a few years, overcoming big injuries to the likes of Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. This year that aura -- and the camaraderie that comes with it -- seems as significant as ever, with the players often pulling chairs around one group of lockers in the clubhouse and sitting in clusters talking and laughing before games.
"It's happened the last couple years where somebody big goes on the DL and we kind of pull together when we need to," starter Brian Duensing said.
Of course, what matters now is not the history, but how they handle what's ahead. The Cleveland series presents perhaps the biggest test of whether those numbers and late-emerging success are for real.
Since the Twins took two of three on June 6-8 at Progressive Field, Cleveland has gained steam. The Indians went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, but have excelled as of late, getting 10 or more hits in six of their past nine games, during which they've hit nine home runs and 15 doubles. And the Indians have been stingy, to say the least, on the other side of the ball: Their bullpen has the second-best ERA (3.19) in the league.
With four games to gain or lose, the Twins could potentially be right up with them after this series ... or find themselves quickly back out of it.
"It's big," Thome said of the win Sunday and looking ahead. "You win today's game, that can be a big boost for your club. And maybe this momentum will carry us over into the next two series."