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Updated: July 20th, 2010 1:05am
Mackey: Slama helps, but Twins still searching for answers on the mound

Mackey: Slama helps, but Twins still searching for answers on the mound

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Prior to Monday night's 20-hit bludgeoning in a 10-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians, manager Ron Gardenhire was asked about the status of the Minnesota Twins' current pitching rotation -- a unit that has struggled mightily lately when anyone not named Carl Pavano is on the mound.

Predictably, Gardenhire said, "I'm still (so) happy that I really don't want to talk about it," referring to Sunday's dramatic win over the White sox. "We'll just talk about it after the next two days. That's when we're going to decide, after the next two days."

Tough to blame a guy for wanting to savor a dramatic, ninth-inning victory over a division rival.

Well, Scott Baker's disappointing performance certainly didn't do much to remove the elephant in the room. He allowed six earned runs on 10 hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings while striking out only one. Four of those runs came in a marathon fifth inning.

From a velocity standpoint -- Baker's fastball hovered consistently between 92-94 miles per hour -- he didn't seem to show any ill effects directly related to elbow tendonitis.

"Obviously I'm conscious of it," Baker said. I'm thinking about it a lot, but in no way, shape or form is there anything keeping me from making my pitches. Obviously we know a cortisone shot isn't a cure-all, but as of right now, physically, I think that I'm good to go. I don't foresee it being a problem."

But Baker wasn't the only Twins pitcher to struggle on Monday. Alex Burnett (two hits, one earned run, zero batters retired), Jose Mijares (two hits and one earned run in one inning) and Jon Rauch (four hits and two earned runs in one inning) all scuffled as well. Rauch also took a line drive off the ankle and will miss a day or two.

As a result of all of the above, and because of other recent pitching disasters, general manager Bill Smith finally pulled the trigger on a move that has been queued up for nearly one full calendar year -- right-handed reliever Anthony Slama's contract was selected from Class-AAA Rochester, and Burnett was temporarily sent packing. To clear room on the 40-man roster, the Twins placed Clay Condrey (elbow) on the 60-day disabled list.

Slama and his 11 strikeouts per nine innings at Rochester this season are a welcome addition to a bullpen that owns the third lowest strikeout rate in baseball (6.58 K/9), but his presence -- even if he pitches well, which is no guarantee -- doesn't even come close to curing all of the Twins' current pitching ailments.

Remaining ailment #1: Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey are all serving up five earned runs on a regular basis. And it's impossible to replace all three in the starting rotation.

Slowey is slated to pitch Tuesday, and he could be pitching for his job. Brian Duensing threw 50 pitches in relief of Blackburn on Sunday, so he is unavailable until at least Wednesday. After that, Duensing could be inserted into the starting rotation.

Baker is probably less likely to lose his rotation spot than Slowey or Blackburn.

Recommended cure: Assuming he's healthy, let Baker pitch through his struggles. He is the best of the bunch, and his peripherals suggest a turnaround is likely. Then flip a coin between Slowey and Blackburn. They could both use a mental breather, but there aren't enough arms to replace everybody.

Remaining ailment #2: The bullpen bridge situation resembles the final scene in Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom.

The ideal bridge to Rauch currently involves some combination of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and lefties Duensing and Jose Mijares. Slama could also fit in there somewhere if he pitches well.

The problem is that the anchor doesn't always hold the ship in place. And the bridge becomes wobbly and unstable these days whenever Baker, Slowey and Blackburn pitch.

Recommended cure: Keep an open mind about the closer situation. This is no slight to Rauch, although he'd obviously disagree. All in all, Rauch has pitched pretty well this season, but the sub-3.00 ERA and ridiculously low walk rate he posted early in the season were quite a ways removed from his seven-year track record.

Rauch is what he is -- a serviceable late-inning option who is prone to getting knocked around once in a while. At the time of Joe Nathan's injury, Rauch was the best option to close out ballgames. He might still be.

But Rauch has now allowed runs in four of his last nine outings, while Crain has quietly become the Twins' hottest reliever. Don't rule Slama out as a ninth-inning option either, although it would have been nice to see what he could have done two months ago.

Remaining ailment #3: The Twins don't have an ace.

The term "ace" is vastly overrated and generally unquantifiable, but whatever the definition and value, the Twins simply don't have one.

Four weeks ago, the Twins appeared to need only an ace -- someone who could come in and shut down big Yankee bats with Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano in the playoffs. That need still exists, but now the Twins could simply use any arm in the starting rotation. And possibly multiple arms.

Recommended cure: Uh... See if the Rangers are willing to spin Cliff Lee?

The three rumored names in the trade market for the Twins these days are Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets and Ted Lilly, with Lilly gaining the most steam as of late. All of these three have flaws, including Oswalt's newfound ankle injury, and none of them are in the same stratosphere as Lee.

In all honesty, there really is no cure for this one. Pavano and Francisco Liriano will almost certainly have to lead the way.

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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