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Updated: June 15th, 2010 11:09pm
Mackey: Matt Tolbert ends brutal stretch of two-hole hitting by Twins

Mackey: Matt Tolbert ends brutal stretch of two-hole hitting by Twins

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been a while since the Twins received a jolt from a number two hitter, but that's exactly what Matt Tolbert provided in Tuesday night's 9-3 throttling of the Rockies.

OK, so his solo home run in the eighth inning was meaningless, but Tolbert also added two walks earlier in the game, which is a big step for a collection of Orlando Hudson replacements that have done next to nothing over the last two weeks.

That's right. Carl Pavano threw seven solid innings yet again, Delmon Young is slugging .500, Jason Kubel has come back from the dead, Alex Burnett has morphed into a reliable relief pitcher, and instead I'm excited to write about two walks and a meaningless eighth-inning home run.

That's because heading into Tuesday night, two-hole hitters not named Hudson were hitting .103/.176/.103 for the Twins in 68 plate appearances this season -- a collection that includes Tolbert, J.J. Hardy, Alexi Casilla, Trevor Plouffe, and Nick Punto.

Again, .103/.176/.103. And no, it's not a typo.

When asked before the game what he looks for in a number two hitter, manager Ron Gardenhire said, "a guy that can handle the bat a little bit, bunt, whatever -- get on base, not afraid to take pitches. A Matt Tolbert, he can hook a ball. Get a man on first, he can hook a ball through that hole, and handle the bat a little bit. He can bunt, he can drag bunt. Just try to get on the base. You do the best you can with it."

Of course, handling the bat is irrelevant if said number two hitter makes outs at the rate of .103/.176/.103. Some might argue, myself included, that Mauer should have been the number two hitter all along with Hudson out.

"Just trying to get on base, obviously," Tolbert said about his approach in the two-hole. "Trying to be a little more patient, because I know the guys behind me. But you don't want to be too passive. Just trying to find that happy place. Just put good at bats together... Trying to be patient, that's the biggest thing."

Hopefully Tolbert's happy place isn't like Happy Gilmore's happy place. That would be weird.

Gardenhire's happy place seems to be anywhere reporters don't ask critical questions about a first-place ball club. As the manager walked away from his daily pre-game press conference before Tuesday's game -- a five-minute session that included mostly critical and/or negative questions, with a Minnesota-nice vibe -- he uttered, "Minnesota Twins, we're in first place. Try to remember that."

And Gardenhire has a point. The Twins still sit 2 1/2 games ahead of the Tigers, which is likely why the criticism and paranoia annoys him. It's also worth noting the Twins have probably never been hyper-analyzed this much in their 50-year history.

It's not necessarily fair to nitpick a team that is 10 games over .500 in the middle of June, but consider me Buzz Killington.

It was refreshing, to say the least, to see Tolbert, Valencia, and Punto reach base a combined total of nine times against Colorado. Tolbert went 1-for-3 with two walks and the home run, Valencia went 2-for-3 with a walk, and Punto went 2-for-3 with a walk.

However, with Hudson and Hardy both still nursing wrist injuries, the Twins -- Tuesday night's outburst against Aaron Cook and company notwithstanding -- have seen an unfortunate trickle-down effect: The bench is a mess, and because of the injuries to Hardy and Hudson, those same bench players (and in some cases Triple-A players) are forced into the starting lineup. As a result, the lineup is... well, interesting. And the roster is thinned out.

Since Hardy's injury essentially rendered him useless after May 4, the Twins are 19-18. Hardy was hitting .250/.299/.450 prior to the bone bruise, and he was also playing fantastic defense. Since Hudson's collision with Denard Span on May 30, the Twins are 7-7.

Small sample sizes, sure. But it's difficult to deny how much of a drop-off the Twins' roster sees with Hudson and Hardy out.

The Twins' bench was a glaring weakness in 2009, but that problem was seemingly rectified with the signing of Jim Thome. Despite Thome's recent struggles (hitting just .171/.318/.257 with zero home runs since May 12), I don't think anyone would argue that he provides more eighth-inning run-producing potential than the Brian Buscher-led bench of last season.

Beyond Thome, however, the Twins have received next to nothing from the backups. Tolbert (.167/.244/.250), Plouffe (.130/.125/.174), Brendan Harris (.160/.237/.217), and Danny Valencia (.323/.364/.323, but all 10 hits are singles) have all put up extremely underwhelming offensive numbers -- and those numbers include Tuesday night's outburst.

Casilla was up to .256/.370/.333, but he's out for two months.

Getting Hudson and Hardy healthy and back in the lineup will solve many of the aforementioned issues. But until then, the Twins could use a few more performances like the ones received from Tolbert, Valencia, and Punto on Tuesday night.

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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