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Updated: June 8th, 2011 5:04pm
Mackey: Despite Capps' hiccup, bullpen hasn't been quite as bad lately

Mackey: Despite Capps' hiccup, bullpen hasn't been quite as bad lately

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- You wouldn't think it based on closer Matt Capps giving up a game-tying, two-out, solo home run to Jack Hannahan in the bottom of the ninth inning in Cleveland on Wednesday.

But the Minnesota Twins bullpen has been pretty damn good during this recent mini-resurgence.

And synchronized bobsledding may or may not have something to do with it.

That's right.

Led by either Chuck James or Drew Butera, depending on who one asks, Twins relievers have injected some John Candy into their pre-game walk from the dugout to the bullpen on this most recent road trip -- a seven-man bobsled on Monday night, followed by a canoe and boat excursion on Tuesday that ended with Capps acting as a motor.

"I think we just come up with something just to kind of ease the moment a little bit," said the left-hander James, who has thrown 4 1/3 scoreless innings since being called-up from Triple-A Rochester in late May.

"It just gives guys something to look forward to. Kind of easing the way a little bit out there, and just let everybody relax a little bit. We've been winning, and it's been working, been throwing well, so I guess we're going to keep sticking with it now."

To go along with bullpen bobsledding and bullpen motorboating -- neither of which will be added to the summer or winter Olympics anytime soon -- the Spongebob Square Pants backpack reserved for the newest reliever has been replaced by a briefcase and glasses.

Anthony Slama rocked the Clark Kent look in Cleveland on Monday, but he was sent back to Rochester on Tuesday, leaving the accessories for Anthony Swarzak.

"I want guys to come to the ballpark and have a good time," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

"If they want to bobsled, that's fine. As long as they don't all bobsled when I bring them into the mound and start ducking the balls, then we're all good. Get (hitters) out. Whatever it takes to do that, that's fine. But that's fun. It's fun for the whole team. It loosens everybody up. We've needed that, and it's good."

Lately, the bullpen has indeed begun to record outs on a regular basis.

Prior to Wednesday, Twins relievers strung together 15 scoreless innings dating back to June 1, allowing only five hits while striking out 10, so it comes as no coincidence the team has won six of eight games during that stretch.

Capps ended the scoreless streak, but his inning was sandwiched by scoreless frames from left-handers Jose Mijares and Phil Dumatrait, who tallied the first save of his major league career.

"We're tight-knit out there, and we've got to pick each other up if something goes wrong," Dumatrait said. "But we're definitely a close bunch, and with the skit stuff ... We're having fun and just carrying it through the game."

Of course, not everything has been perfect. The bullpen did issue nine walks over those 15 innings, and defense has played a key role in helping rack up outs.

In to protect a 2-1 eighth-inning lead on Wednesday, Mijares started Grady Sizemore with two balls, then winced when the former All-Star laced a liner toward right field. But first baseman Luke Hughes made a spectacular, lunging catch to record the out.

Later in the game, Capps -- who now has five blown saves in 13 tries -- gave up the ninth-inning home run to Hannahan, owner a career .224/.312/.347 batting line.

Not to mention, Twins relievers still collectively possess the worst ERA in baseball (5.06 heading into Wednesday), the most walks per nine (4.61), the third-fewest strikeouts per nine (6.11), and the lowest groundball rate (38.6%).

And Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson are still pacing back and forth at a rapid rate when the starting pitcher exits.

"We're kind of trying to get them in some roles and figure it out," Gardenhire said. "We're trying to use our lefties as a according to the stuff they have. James looks like he can go (against) left and right-(handed hitters). He's got a great changeup. Phil (Dumatrait) and Mija, we'll try to use them in those seventh and eighth inning left-handed situations, and (Alex Burnett) is our eighth inning guy pretty much. We're going to try keeping him in the eighth inning.

"The rest of them it's just mix and match like (Jim) Hoey. We'll mix and match with him. With (Anthony Swarzak) we're going to try to take a peak and see what we have to do."

In other words, the bullpen still resembles a giant, unstable Jenga tower, and Gardenhire is doing his best to make the right moves at the right times.

Burnett is a good example. After being demoted and then recalled again six weeks ago, Burnett immediately struggled once again, walking five and allowing five earned runs on eight hits in his first four innings in May.

In fact, each of Burnett's first 16 appearances came in losses.

Since mid-May, however, Burnett has walked only one batter in his last 12 outings, which in this game of musical chairs is good enough to vault a guy into eighth-inning duties.

"That's cool, I guess, to hear that from (Gardenhire), Burnett said.

"I just told myself to throw the ball over the middle and let it run, because my stuff moves pretty well. I've just been telling myself to attack the hitter. Don't try to be too fine. Don't give the hitter too much credit. Let them put the ball in play."

It's entirely possible, if not likely, that Burnett will soon move back down the ladder. Left-hander Glen Perkins (1.59 ERA) could return from a strained oblique during the next homestand, and right-hander Joe Nathan is progressing after landing on the DL with elbow tenderness.

Plus, the Twins have used 14 different relief pitchers this year, and it took two months for any combination to start clicking.

The Jenga game will likely continue. As will the musical chairs.

And the bobsledding.

"I think there's so much stress in the big leagues, and there's so much emphasis on throwing well and winning ballgames," James said. "So I think anything you can kind of incorporate with that to kind of ease the spirits up a little bit and just give guys a little bit of fun. ...

"We did have one planned (for Thursday at Target Field)," James said. "But it wouldn't be right if we told you guys."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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