Trevor Plouffe was in the on-deck circle to bat for Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the ninth inning on Sunday at Target Field. It would have been the first time this season manager Ron Gardenhire used a pinch hitter for Nishioka.

"I don't want to do anything to make the young man doubt himself, but after that last time, I just couldn't send him up there again," Gardenhire said.

Detroit closer Jose Valverde struck out Delmon Young to end the Tigers' 5-2 victory, so the pinch hitter never did appear.

Nishioka struck out three times in three at-bats. He went down swinging to lead off the third against Detroit starter Rick Porcello. He took a third strike from Porcello to end the Twins' lone rally in the fourth. And his feet were closer to the grass than the plate when he took a futile hack at strike three from reliever Al Alburquerque in the seventh.

Anyone interested can find several excuses for Nishioka's substandard play. He started the season at second base and lasted six games before he broke his left leg when the Yankees' Nick Swisher slid into him.

He missed 60 games before returning to play shortstop on June 16. The Twins have played 35 games since then. He has started 33 at shortstop, played in another and missed only the second game of last Monday's split doubleheader with Cleveland.

The Twins lost two that day, the lowlight of a 6-6 homestand that leaves them seven games removed from .500 and seven games behind Detroit, the single AL Central team with more plus areas on its roster than minuses.

The minuses remain overwhelming with the Twins, starting with a collection of hitters that is producing 3.8 runs per game -- nearly a run less than in 2010. There is no power, the starting pitching has hit the wall and they are headed off to Texas to face a red-hot team in red-hot conditions.

It's the start of a 10-game road trip that looks like a death sentence for a team that escaped one in June, and maybe that makes the Nishioka problem look small in the grand picture.

Except ... he's here on a three-year deal and here is a serious question facing the front office, the talent evaluators, the manager and the coaches:

Can Nishioka play in the big leagues?

"He has done OK in the field at shortstop," Gardenhire said. "It's unorthodox, but he's been making some good plays the past couple of weeks. We haven't screwed up double plays. He's been fine in the field."

There was the key description of Nishioka's fielding: OK.

He's not a shortstop that a team will go out of its way to have in the lineup because of fielding. "OK" will be his maximum in the field. Where he was supposed to be an asset was to the attack -- hitting for a high average (not .227) and hustling around the bases.

When introduced at a Target Field news conference on Dec. 18, Nishioka was asked how he saw himself fitting with the Twins and said: "I believe my job is to step on home plate as much as possible."

He has done that eight times in 40 games -- a small number compared to the times he has stepped on the outside chalk of the lefty batter's box while in the process of taking a swing.

There were a couple of those ridiculous bailout swings Sunday that caused Gardenhire to send Plouffe to the on-deck circle in the ninth.

The Twins have pored over video of Nishioka hitting last season as the Japan League batting champion.

"Every at-bat I got on this disc, he gets a hit, so I don't know what he was doing when he made outs," Gardenhire said. "But what I do see of him lefthanded, he's keeping his head in good position, staying back with his hands and body and striding toward the pitcher.

"You can see that the pitchers don't throw as hard in Japan. That's an adjustment for him -- and that probably figures in the problem he's had figuring out the strike zone at times, too."

One thing Gardenhire and the Twins know for certain: There's one guy, Japanese or otherwise, who could hit as he flew around the lefthanded batter's box, and the name was Ichiro, not Nishi.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. •