The main defense offered by the athletes for the return of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has been that they continued to give a full effort for him, even when overmatched.

“He still gets us to work; he still gets us to care,” closer Glen Perkins said over the weekend. “You can’t tell me our record would be better with someone else.”

This is very reassuring, because if the Twins had quit on Gardenhire over the last three seasons, things could have gotten kind of ugly. Consider:

The 2011 Twins were 35-46 through the first half of the schedule, and stuck gamely with Gardy to go 28-53 over the second half (including 19-50 after July 17). The 2012 Twins were also 35-46 at the halfway point, and 31-50 to finish (including 16-31 after Aug. 13).

And then along came the battlin’ 2013 Twins to earn Gardenhire a two-year contract extension, with a 36-45 first half and a 30-51 second half (including 5-20 after Sept. 3).

These Twins not only escaped last place in the AL Central for the first time in three years, edging the Mighty Whiteys of Chicago, but they were able to pass along some very important lessons through another sterling stretch drive.

For instance:

Oswaldo Arcia, 22, and the player of the most promise to debut in 2013, banged a knee against a Target Field fence during pre-game drills last Monday.

In Detroit, where Prince Fielder waddled into town on a fat contract two years ago and has played 324 out of 324 regular-season games, someone would have said, “Hey, Ossie, shake it off. You’re in the lineup.”

In Minnesota, where a culture has surfaced that the players seem to fill out permission slips to be in the lineup, the message was: “Take the day off, kid. Games in September (or August or July) don’t mean anything around here.”

Arcia was allowed to tough it out for one start at DH and a total of five at-bats over the final seven-game homestand. And he now knows that the Twins Way, which used to be, “You play the game right here,” has become, “You play the game when you want to here.”

This actually began in 2010, when Twins started missing time with sore cuticles, but there still were enough “gamers” and enough starting pitchers to win 94 games and a sixth AL Central title.

Media types who were close to Michael Cuddyer insist that his decision to leave Minnesota and head to Colorado after the 2011 season had as much to do with disgust over the privileged attitude that he perceived to have taken over the Twins’ clubhouse as the extra millions offered by the Rockies.

The instant analysis is to put that on Joe Mauer, the $23 million player with long gaps in his availability, but there were also young players who didn’t get it that irritated the few veterans (such as Cuddyer) who still cared.

Cuddyer had significant injury problems of his own in Colorado in 2012, and then came back to win the National League batting title in 2013. As the Twins’ right fielder of the past was doing that, the right fielder of the future (Arcia) was taught that being in the lineup is optional.

Gardy and the Twins were able to get in some vital evaluation during the push to 96 more losses:

They were able to detect that 29-year-old Clete Thomas might not be what old-time scouts call a “first-division” player in center field. And, that a 29-year-old (Chris Colabello) who stands 3 feet from the plate might not be able to take his slugging to the big leagues, and that Chris Parmelee’s slow bat doesn’t work here, and that Josh Willingham can follow a good year at 33 with a putrid one at 34, and Aaron Hicks can’t hit lefthanded, and Perdo Florimon can’t hit period, and Chris Herrmann and Darin Mastroianni aren’t actually big-leaguers, and …

Yes, the Twins and Gardenhire discovered so much this season, but what didn’t they discover?

Not one starting pitcher of importance — maybe a 4/5 starter in Kevin Correia, but not one other pitcher that you would like to see start another game for the Twins.

OK, maybe Kyle Gibson, but after seeing the lack of pizzazz on his pitches, this surefire, top-3 starting pitcher of the future has become as iffy as Hicks as a starting outfielder of the future.

Welcome back, Gardy. And if it’s true that the 2013 Twins never quit on you, that might be the most-frightening indictment of all for this baseball operation.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.