Mackey: Handing out Twins midseason awards
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CHICAGO -- On June 2, the Minnesota Twins sat 20 games under .500 and 16.5 games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians.
Heading into the All-Star break nearly six weeks later, after taking three out of four from the Chicago White Sox, the Twins have clawed back to within seven games of .500 and sit 6.5 games behind the first place Detroit Tigers.
"It's actually, considering where we are, it's been kind of an amazing run to get this close to .500 as we are right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said Sunday.
"A lot of good things have come about. Some young players have stepped up, our middle infield has gotten really settled. We're really comfortable with Alexi (Casilla) and (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) -- something that we were kind of fighting earlier, trying to get a middle infield set up when Nishi was out. So some good things have happened in this run, and now it's about getting our other guys back healthy and continue the process."
The Twins were a complete mess the first two months of the season.
A pitching staff that traditionally throws more strikes than any staff in baseball led the league in walks. An offense that scored the seventh-most runs in baseball last year ranked at or near the bottom in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs.
And a collection of players that spent nearly all of February and March getting healthy for the season opener wound up seeing most of its key position players land on the disabled list.
"It's not what we set out (to do) out of spring training, but our injuries have played a part in it, and some general, pretty sloppy play," Gardenhire said. "We really struggled defensively, we struggled throwing the ball over early in the season, and that all led to us being about 20 games under .500. But a credit to these guys out in the clubhouse and my coaching staff. They haven't quit. They've rallied."
It's happened before. Maybe it's happening again.
MVP: Michael Cuddyer
Heading to the first All-Star game of his career, Cuddyer has carried the offensive load for the Twins during the team's resurgence. Since May 14, Cuddyer was hitting .339/.415/572 with 10 home runs and 12 doubles in 205 plate appearances heading into Sunday, when he went 2-for-4 with an RBI single.
It's also worth pointing out that Cuddyer is hitting .347/.433/.636 since the Twins' resurgence began on June 2, and he has played three different defensive positions this season (RF, 2B, 1B).
To go along with his massive production, Cuddyer has also been one of the only regulars to remain healthy for all three months.
Underachieving hitter: Delmon Young
Young carried the Twins' offense on his back for three months in 2010, hitting .361/.386/.590 with 12 home runs, 72 RBIs and 28 doubles between May 2 and August 1, which is basically the equivalent to one half of baseball. To put that into context, only one player currently has more than 72 RBIs at this year's All-Star break (Adrian Gonzalez, 77), and only six players have a higher OPS at the break than the .976 mark Young put up over his three-month tear last year (Jose Bautista, Lance Berkman, Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Matt Kemp and Miguel Cabrera).
That version of Young has been nowhere to be found in 2011. Having served two stints on the disabled list with sore ribs and a sprained ankle, Young is hitting just .256/.281/.324 with two home runs and eight doubles in 217 plate appearances -- and that includes a June mini-surge that saw him hit .321/.337/.417 with six extra-base hits in 86 trips.
Aside from the fact that the Twins offense could really use Young's potent bat, the 25-year-old is set to become a free agent after the 2012 season. These next three months will have a major impact on his future as a Twin.
Best starter: Scott Baker
Last season was a tumultuous one for Baker, who received two cortisone injections to calm a recurring bout with elbow tendonitis and eventually underwent clean-up surgery during the offseason. Baker posted a 4.49 ERA -- his worst since a partial season in 2006 (6.37) -- while throwing a career low 51% of his pitches in the strike zone.
But after winning the competition in spring training for the final rotation slot, Baker has been the Twins' most dominant starter, allowing one earned run or fewer in seven of his 17 starts. Only one time all year has Baker allowed more than four earned runs in an outing.
Not to mention, Baker's 8.46 strikeouts per nine innings are a career high.
This is the version of Baker Twins brass was hoping to see more regularly when they handed him a four-year, $15.25 million deal three offseasons ago.
Best reliever: Glen Perkins
The front office's plan of heading into spring training with an open competition between more than a dozen relief pitchers backfired in a big way early this season, but the emergence of Perkins as a lights-out set-up man has helped cushion the blow.
After putting out a fire in the seventh inning on Sunday and retiring five batters in all, Perkins' ERA now sits at 1.87 on the season. He has 36 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings while walking only 12 and allowing zero home runs so far.
As a starter, Perkins was never much of a strikeout guy, whiffing 4.3 batters per nine in 44 career starts. He fared better as a minor league starter, punching out 7.0 batters per nine in 33 Triple-A starts.
But this is the first year Perkins has been able to focus solely on harnessing his stuff for one inning at a time, and the transition has been seamless. His average fastball is up to 93 mph, touching 94-95 on a regular basis, as opposed to 91 mph as a starter.
"I know if I get to two strikes, I can probably try to elevate and strike somebody out," said Perkins, who added that he also feels more confident in his slider now than at any point in his career, even using it as a strikeout pitch down and in against right-handed batters.
Perkins also seems to have righted his issues against left-handed hitters, who came into the season with an OPS over .800. This season, lefties were hitting just .196/.275/.239 (.514 OPS).
Underachieving pitcher: Francisco Liriano
Considering Liriano owns a 3.45 ERA since May 1 with 54 strikeouts in 60 innings, this label might seem a bit unfair. But Liriano's resurgence, which began with an unlikely no-hitter in Chicago on May 3, doesn't fully wipe out his abysmal start.
Liriano posted a 9.13 ERA in April with 18 walks and 18 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings -- a performance that acted as an anchor for an already sinking ship.
Like Young, Liriano is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2012 season, and the Twins must decide whether to offer a long-term contract extension.
Liriano's biggest problem throughout the last year-and-a-half has been a lack of consistency, which comes mostly from him rushing his delivery.
"It seems like I can feel when I'm (rushing mechanics)," Liriano said last week. "That's one of the reasons I get so pissed off at myself, because I know what I'm doing wrong, and I just keep doing it."
Liriano will open the second half of the season for the Twins on Thursday against the Kansas City Royals.
Rookie of the year: Ben Revere
With 14 players being called up from Triple-A Rochester through the first three months, there are several rookies to choose from, but it's only fitting that the Twins' resurgence began the day Revere entered the lineup on a daily basis.
Revere stepped in on June 2 in Kansas City and went 1-for-3 with a double, a walk, an RBI and a stolen base as the right fielder, then took over center field for a concussed Denard Span two days later and went 2-for-5 with an RBI and two runs. Since June 2, Revere is hitting .279/.318/.321 with 13 multi-hit games, and he seems to be good for a web gem at least once every other game.
Gardenhire said Saturday he intends to keep Revere in the lineup even when the rest of his outfielders -- Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel -- come back healthy. If Span and Revere can play next to each other in the same outfield, the Twins would have one of the best defensive units in baseball, which obviously plays well inside the spacious Target Field.
Most likely for second half turnaround: Joe Mauer
Admittedly still sore and not particularly close to 100%, Mauer is hitting just .243/.303/.288 in 121 plate appearances. But despite health issues that will likely linger for the rest of the season, Mauer -- who has never hit below .293 at any level -- is almost guaranteed to break out offensively at some point.
In order to keep Mauer fresh, Gardenhire said he will continue to use the former MVP at first base once in a while after the All-Star break. Expect Mauer to catch 3-5 days a week, mixing in at designated hitter and first base on the days he takes off.
39: The number of players used by the Twins so far this season.
13: Different players placed on the disabled list this year.
18-20: Twins' record in one-run games. The Twins were 31-23 in one-run games last year.
24-11: Twins' record since June 2, which is the second-most wins of any team in baseball over that stretch, second only to the Boston Red Sox (25-9).
8/15: Of the 15 Twins hitters with at least 90 plate appearances, only eight have on-base percentages above .300.