State of the Twins: Health was top priority heading into ALDS
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Losing eight of their last 10 games to end the season, some folks might suggest the Minnesota Twins are stumbling into their ALDS match-up with the New York Yankees.
We'll examine the theory of playoff momentum later in the week, but rest assured, despite the losses, manager Ron Gardenhire and company fulfilled their number one priority over the last 10 days.
"I don't like how we got here -- too many losses -- but health is something we've really been working towards," Gardenhire said.
"I think at least the one thing we've done is gotten everybody to the point where they're ready, health-wise."
And Gardenhire proved that in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays by penciling in what he called "The Lineup" for the first time since clinching the division:
Get used to that lineup. Gardenhire hinted strongly that he would not stray from this lineup during the playoffs, aside from potentially moving Kubel up higher against a tough right-hander.
Does this mean the Twins are 100% healthy? Absolutely not. Mauer's knee will likely be sore until he can rest it during the offseason, Thome's back is a constant adventure, Hudson seemed to be favoring his shoulder in Sunday's game, and others are dealing with nicks and bruises as well.
"Everybody's banged up this time of year," said Denard Span, who has battled a sore right shoulder since early June. "You can go around the clubhouse right now and ask anybody if they're 100%, and if they tell you they're 100% they're going to be lying to you."
As for the stresses of losing, and losing badly, several times over the last two weeks, Gardenhire said he felt a bit stressed out.
"I would say after we clinched you kind of relax a little bit, but when we started getting our brains beat out, the exhaustion went right back up," the manager said. "(I was awake) at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning because I was pretty flustered, to tell you the truth. I was trying to remain as calm as I could and trying to keep my emotions in check, but that was hard to take. Let me tell you the truth. You get beat, you get beat, and we were giving up 10 runs per game. It wasn't like the guys weren't trying. We were trying."
Gardenhire went on to say, "I think we're where we wanted to be, getting ready for the playoffs. And now the true test comes. Can we do what we set out to do in spring training? And that's win our division and get to the World Series. That's our true test. That's what we said we wanted to do, said that before the winter started last year, that we wanted to step it up and get better. Well, we'll see."
Here's how things stand heading into the ALDS:
• RHP Matt Guerrier: After fighting himself throughout June, July and August, Guerrier has stepped up over the past month, posting a 1.38 ERA since August 27. Over that stretch, Guerrier has allowed runs in only two of his 15 appearances, and he has struck out 10 batters while walking only four in 13 innings. The Twins already have one of the strongest bullpens in baseball, but if Guerrier has indeed found his usual form, the bridge becomes much stronger.
• OF Delmon Young: He disappeared for a minute in August and late-September after tearing through the early summer months as perhaps the hottest hitter in baseball, but over the last two weeks Young has seemingly found a groove once again. Since September 19, when his batting average bottomed out at .295 after soaring as high as .335 on August 1, Young is hitting .327/.375/.615 with 10 RBIs. For the season, Young set career highs in batting average (.298), slugging percentage (.493), OPS (.826), HRs (21), RBIs (112), doubles (46) and fewest strikeouts (81).
• LHP Brian Duensing: Over his last three starts, Duensing has admittedly struggled in his pre-game bullpen warm-up sessions -- stiffness in the shoulder area, as well as feeling "a little jumpy" at times, as he puts it. The numbers reflect those struggles, as Duensing has now walked four batters in each of his last three starts, surpassing his total from the previous 10 starts combined. Over those three starts, Duensing posted a 6.11 ERA with 12 strikeouts, 12 walks, 20 hits allowed and three home runs given up in 17 2/3 innings.
This was really the first poor stretch Duensing (10-3, 2.62) has endured all season, and Gardenhire still intends to send the left-hander out for Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. And Duensing, who started Game 1 of last year's ALDS at Yankee Stadium, has earned that right with his body of work.
"It's kind of hard to really try and do that," Duensing said when asked if he could take anything from last year's experience. "Just because last year I wasn't really expected to pitch that game, I guess. And their team was different last year. They had some time off. They were able to prepare, and they knew whoever they were going to get was going to be on short rest. I think every year is different. The only thing I can take away from it is the fact that I've been there and I know what the atmosphere will be like."
"It's October baseball. It's loud, it's hectic, it's crazy. Everything's riding on every pitch, every out of the game. So it's intense, but it's fun intense too."
• RHP Jesse Crain: Since turning in one of the best three-month stretches of any relief pitcher in baseball, Crain has cooled off a bit since the beginning of September, posting a 5.40 ERA with 11 hits and eight walks issued in only 11 2/3 innings. On Friday night, Crain allowed four earned runs to the Blue Jays in one inning of work, including a three-run bomb off the bat of the red-hot Edwin Encarnacion.
Even so, Crain's summer of dominance buys him a free pass to struggle for a stretch.
PROJECTED ALDS ROSTER
Teams aren't required to submit ALDS rosters until one hour before Game 1, and with Jon Rauch and Scott Baker both being potential question marks, the Twins are in no hurry to finalize anything.
That said, Gardenhire told reporters he intends to keep 11 pitchers and 14 position players on the roster. He also said catcher Jose Morales will travel with the team but will not be on the ALDS roster.
"We're probably going to keep all of our speed off the bench," Gardenhire said. "I talked to Morales yesterday and told him more than likely he's traveling with us, but won't be on the first round playoff roster. Unless we were to have a health issue with one of our catchers, Joe's going to catch and Butera is the backup.
"With this lineup, I'm not going to (pinch) hit for anybody. They're going to play. So we need defense, you need more speed, you need pinch runners, you need defensive replacements more than you need anything else."
Projected position players (14)
C Joe Mauer
1B Michael Cuddyer
2B Orlando Hudson
SS J.J. Hardy
3B Danny Valencia
OF Delmon Young
OF Denard Span
OF Jason Kubel
DH Jim Thome
C Drew Butera
OF Jason Repko
INF Alexi Casilla
INF Nick Punto
INF Matt Tolbert
Projected pitchers (11)
LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Carl Pavano
LHP Brian Duensing
RHP Nick Blackburn
RHP Matt Guerrier
RHP Jesse Crain
RHP Jon Rauch
RHP Matt Capps
RHP Kevin Slowey *
LHP Jose Mijares
LHP Brian Fuentes
* Gardenhire said on Sunday, "I will talk to (Scott) Baker," because the manager believes Baker is having questions in his mind about his previously tendinitis-stricken pitching elbow. As of right now, it looks like the Twins are leaning toward Slowey as the long reliever. Glen Perkins will also travel with the team, but he isn't likely to land on the ALDS roster.
• The double Mauer hit in Sunday's game was his 43rd of the season, which set a new Twins single-season record for doubles by a catcher (Brian Harper - 42).
• The Twins are 33-47 in postseason play all-time, including 5-14 in the division series and 6-18 overall under Gardenhire.
• Mauer returned to the starting lineup as a designated hitter on Thursday after missing 11 days with a sore knee. He then caught Pavano on Friday and Blackburn on Sunday, reporting no significant issues with the knee. Gardenhire said Mauer is likely to play through some level of pain until the offseason, but so far that pain has been manageable.
• Rauch was a scratch for this weekend's final regular season series after having fluid drained from his left knee. Rauch also received a cortisone shot, and he is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Monday. His status for the ALDS is up in the air.
• 1B Justin Morneau ramped up his workouts at Target Field last week, and he has spoken with general manager Bill Smith about possibly heading to Florida sometime in the near future to face live pitching. Morneau will not be on the Twins' ALDS roster, but he is attempting to be ready for the ALCS, should the Twins make it that far.
• Hardy has played in three of the last four games after missing time with a swollen knee.
• Span has experienced right shoulder soreness for much of the last three months and some right foot soreness as of late, but he continues to play every day.
• Thome has played in three straight games after missing more than a week with back soreness.
• Baker has made two starts since returning from elbow tendinitis, allowing three earned runs in 10 innings (2.70 ERA), along with 10 hits, 16 strikeouts, one home run allowed and five walks. On Sunday, however, Gardenhire said questions linger about the confidence Baker has in that elbow.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: off day
• Tuesday: team workout
• Wednesday: ALDS Game 1 vs. Yankees, 7:37 p.m.. Probable starters: Liriano (14-10, 3.62) vs. LHP C.C. Sabathia (21-7, 3.18).
• Thursday: ALDS Game 2 vs. Yankees, time 5:07 p.m. Probable starters: Pavano (17-11, 3.75) vs. TBD.
• Friday: off day
• Saturday: ALDS Game 3 @ Yankees, time 7:37 p.m. Probable starters: Duensing (10-3, 2.62) vs. TBD.
• Sunday: ALDS Game 4 @ Yankees (if necessary), time TBD. Probable starters: Blackburn (10-12, 5.42) vs. TBD.
All games on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.