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Updated: April 29th, 2012 9:19pm
Mackey: Twins aren't delusional for still believing, but must go now

Mackey: Twins aren't delusional for still believing, but must go now

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Quality starts in baseball can be looked at one of two ways.

Glass half empty: Three runs allowed in six innings equates to a 4.50 ERA -- a number that no pitcher, manager or front office executive in baseball celebrates.

Glass half full: Allowing three runs in six innings gives teams with capable bats and a half-reliable bullpen a chance to win almost every game.

On Sunday, Jason Marquis (career 4.57 ERA) poured a half-full glass into a half-empty glass, pitching exactly six innings and allowing exactly three runs to the Kansas City Royals -- an effort good enough for a Twins offense that scored seven runs.

"We don't want an 'S' on anybody's chest," Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We just want them to go out there and throw the ball over the plate. I think we're catching the ball a lot better. We seem to be doing that pretty good, so throw it over, let the guys catch it and we think we can score some runs. But they've got to put up some zeros and give us an opportunity to do some damage against the other people."

The Twins' 5-15 record through 20 games was the worst start in franchise history. A win on Sunday over the Royals helped stop the bleeding.

But the team heads out on a six-game, west coast road trip with several what-if scenarios stuck in their heads.

What if the pitching staff were performing just poorly (say, a 4.75 ERA), rather than embarrassingly bad (6.87)?

What if an offense tied for 10th in on-base percentage (.332) were hitting better than .233 with runners in scoring position?

What if the April schedule hadn't included perhaps the top five teams in the American League right off the bat?

"We're scoring six runs (often). We just have to pitch," Gardenhire said. "It all gets down to the pitching part. I know we haven't hit with men in scoring position but we're still putting enough runs on the board to win ballgames.

"Sure, we have missed opportunities late in the game to finish off a team, but we still have to pitch better. You can't trade twos with people and crooked numbers with them. It takes a lot to get back into a game and at the end when you face the big closers you put yourself in tough situations. ...

"I feel like we're going to score every inning when we walk out there, I really do. I feel like one way or another, we're going to score. And we've put plenty of people out there."

Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano and Liam Hendriks are all scheduled to pitch in Los Angeles this week. Blackburn (7.53 ERA) is throwing the ball with more movement and deception than last year, but the results haven't come yet. Liriano has the potential of a top-line starter but the ERA (11.02) of Scott Klingenbeck. And Hendriks (6.89) is a young pitcher still learning.

All of them must start pitching better.

The feeling among players in the clubhouse is the Twins' record isn't a valid representation of its talent level. Players are cautioning that it's early -- that starters just need to find a groove, and that hitters just need to come up with that one extra hit late in games.

As Denard Span said Sunday, "We don't feel like we're 6-and-whatever we are. We feel like we've got a good ball club, and we just feel like if we keep coming to the ballpark with a positive attitude that we'll turn this thing around. Just as quick as we've lost some of these games, it can turn around."

But at what point does it stop being early?

"I'm not too excited right now. Let's put it that way," Gardenhire said Saturday, when the Twins were still stuck in a six-game losing streak. "How far do you wan to dig yourself a hole here? It's early but it's also too early to lose games like this too. We need to win some baseball games. We need to shake hands a little bit. It's the atmosphere you worry about. Guys keep take a beating in there and they can get up so many times, but we need to win a game and shake some hands. We need to have that feeling."

If the Twins do still consider themselves players in the American League Central -- and that is the feeling internally, despite the slow start -- they're fortunate the division is mired in quicksand.

The Twins still sit only 5.5 games back of Cleveland (11-9) and 4.5 back of Detroit (11-11).

Detroit was projected by many to run away from the pack, but Prince Fielder one home run since April 7, three of the Tigers' starting pitchers have ERAs over 6.40, and Delmon Young -- hitting just .242/.311/.333 -- was arrested for an alleged hate-crime assault. They also have unreliable defenders at several positions.

"No one is running away, but we're running the other way," Gardenhire said Saturday. "We've got to do our part to stay in there and win some baseball games. We need to do that for the sanity of some guys in the clubhouse. Some guys are trying to do too much when they get into these situations. Trying to hit eight-run home runs. ... Trying to throw 100 when you throw 85.

"Those are the things that happens when it snowballs."

A prime example of over-thinking took place on Friday night with the Twins trailing the Royals 4-3 in the fourth inning. Alexi Casilla, off to a solid start offensively compared to previous Aprils, came up with runners on first and second and nobody out.

The Royals had third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer playing in on the grass, protecting against a bunt. Left-hander Everett Teaford fired a first-pitch fastball to Casilla, who faked a bunt, pulled back, took a full swing and fouled it off.

Two pitches later, Casilla tapped a slider back to Teaford, who started a 1-6-3 double play.

"They've got guys in on the corners, both corners. The middle infielders are up the middle. The field is wide open," Gardenhire said. "(Casilla) has been swinging as good as he can swing (lately). So instead of putting the bunt on, he's swinging it. They are thinking bunt. They (pitcher) throws him a first-pitch fastball. He fake bunts, pulls back and swings. Your mind is blowing up. There is no reason. The kid is swigging his ass off. Right now he's on everything they throw. Why do you want to do that?

"That's over-thinking the game. Simplicity here."

The formula was simple on Sunday: Score four runs in the first inning, get a solid (even if unspectacular) outing from the starting pitcher, and hang on late.

And the pitching will get better. To put the starters' 6.87 ERA through 21 games into context, only six teams have collective starter ERAs over 4.50 right now. And one major-league starter posted an ERA over 6.00 in 2011 -- Boston's John Lackey (6.41).

"We just have to find the relaxed feeling, Gardenhire said Saturday. "A win will make a big difference here. It'd take the weight of the world off a few people here, including the manager, because I like shaking hands more than anybody.

"They're playing. They're busting their ass. They're trying. They're making some nice plays out there and they're putting some pretty good swings on the ball. Now we've just got to figure out how to have the higher number on our side. That's what we need to do."

Are the Twins delusional?

No. But soon it will no longer be "early."

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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