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Updated: June 29th, 2010 11:42pm
Pelissero: Forget pitching for a sec -- Twins' offense needs to do its job

Pelissero: Forget pitching for a sec -- Twins' offense needs to do its job

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Nick Blackburn saved his spot in the Minnesota Twins' rotation for at least five more days on Tuesday night, and he needed nothing more than an OK outing to do it.

Seven innings, four runs, seven hits, four strikeouts and two walks on 97 pitches (62 strikes) -- without question, a step forward for a guy who'd gotten through four frames just once in five previous June outings.

But the Twins' 11-4 blasting of Detroit, restoring their half-game lead in the American League Central standings, was a reminder of the formula that was supposed to keep them on top all season.

For all the recent hand-wringing and cries for help via trade, this team wasn't supposed to live and die on starting pitching. OK, in many cases, was supposed to be good enough.

This Twins team -- infused with Orlando Hudson in the No. 2 slot, a new-and-improved Delmon Young, J.J. Hardy hitting eighth and Jim Thome providing punch off the bench -- was supposed to score a lot of runs.

Yet they entered the night averaging only 4.61 per game -- 14th in the major leagues, way down from their averages in 2008 (5.09, fourth) and '09 (5.01, fifth) and unable to cover for the periodic mediocrity (or worse) that comes with starting the likes of Blackburn, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.

"We've got a good lineup out there," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've got a lot of guys stacked in there, and we need to score some runs and take some pressure off these guys so they can keep going."

The Twins are 8-1 when they back Blackburn with at least five runs and 1-5 when they don't. The numbers are almost identical behind Slowey -- 8-0 when they score five, 1-6 when they don't.

Sure, the rotation has underachieved outside of Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, especially of late. In June, the trio of Blackburn, Baker and Slowey is 3-9 with a 7.38 earned-run average. And Blackburn did blow the lead once on Tuesday, giving up three earned runs on four hits in an ugly top of the third before the Twins knotted the score at 3 on Justin Morneau's two-out RBI single in the bottom half.

"I thought that was a huge hit by him," Gardenhire said. "(Jason) Kubel had a big (two-out, two-run double) early. That's what we need."

The point is, unless and until the Twins make a deal to bolster the rotation, their offense has to take good enough and win with it. That doesn't mean three triples by Denard Span and eight extra-base hits every night, but two-out RBIs from three different players is a good start.

Blackburn entered Tuesday having induced 32 swinging strikes all season. That number might not mean much until you consider that's only 4 percent of his pitches -- by far the lowest percentage in all of baseball.

Pitching to contact is one thing. Throwing batting practice is another, and Blackburn has admitted that's exactly what he tries to do when he feels he's overthrowing.

So, of all the positive signs Blackburn showed on the mound Tuesday -- with a shorter stride, a more crossways delivery and a heavy sink, he induced 12 ground-ball outs -- perhaps most important was the run support that seemed to help him relax even after the early trouble.

"I've had that backfire on me also," Blackburn said. "(Tuesday), I just tried to not even think about the score so much and just try to go out there and do exactly what we've been working on, and it worked."

Before the game, Gardenhire was noncommittal about whether Blackburn was pitching for his starting spot, saying the team was "going on the positive route that he's going to win a ballgame for us and we won't talk about it anymore."

Blackburn did his part on Tuesday, earning his first victory since May 27.

He wasn't exceptional, though -- just OK. And that was good enough.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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