State of the Twins, week 20: Pushing forward without a lefty specialist
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After defeating the Angels 4-0 on Sunday night, the Minnesota Twins now sit 20 games over .500 and hold a five-game lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.
Prior to the season, the formula was fairly straightforward; the pitching staff wasn't expected to be lights out, but instead just good enough to complement what was supposed to be one of the best offenses in the major leagues.
And as of late, that's exactly what has happened for the Twins. The offense, by all measurements, has been the best unit in baseball since the All-Star break, and the pitching staff -- albeit not always healthy or consistent -- has done enough to keep the Twins in the win column.
That could be a problem in late-game situations.
"When we get late in games, we'll just get to Jesse (Crain), and Matty Guerrier and Rauch Man, and hopefully that's where we'll be late in a ballgame," manager Ron Gardenhire said.
"We know our guys that are getting people out. They might have to face a guy they don't have great numbers against."
Exhibit A: Crain came on to pitch the eighth inning of a 4-0 ballgame on Sunday night. With runners on first and second and two outs, left-hander Hideki Matsui (hitting .290/.375/.485 against righties in his career) came up to the plate.
This is a spot where, historically, Mijares would likely come in. But the Twins no longer have that luxury.
After Matsui fouled off several two-strike pitches, Jesse Crain -- who has emerged as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball this season -- eventually got him to whiff on an off-speed pitch to end the inning.
"Teams go without lefties," Gardenhire said. "The Angels, the only lefty in their bullpen is the closer. And they've done that a lot of times in the past. There's been other teams.
"If you have that luxury, and you have lefties that are good and can get people out, great. But you don't always have to have them."
Gardenhire added that Glen Perkins will, at times, have to come in and retire left-handed hitters, as opposed to only pitching in long relief. Of course, the problem with Perkins is that lefties (.853 career OPS) hit him harder than righties (.796 OPS).
"He's going to have to be used (against lefties) for sure," Gardenhire said. "And he's going to have to spin the ball."
Regarding the fact that Perkins isn't pitching particularly well these days -- against righties or lefties -- Gardenhire said, "Well, if he gets that one guy out he'll be pitching well. If he does it two times in a row, then we'll say he's pitching well."
Among the Twins' right-handed bullpen options, Crain (.721 OPS against) has had the best success against left-handed hitters throughout his career, followed by Matt Guerrier (.755 OPS against).
Gardenhire told 1500 ESPN last week that general manager Bill Smith continues to search for left-handed bullpen options with the August 31 waiver trade deadline approaching. But for now, the team will push forward without one.
Here's how things stand through 20 weeks:
• LHP Brian Duensing: Speaking of lefties, the Twins used to have a solid one in the bullpen in Duensing, but he has now become the team's hottest starting pitcher. In six starts since joining the starting rotation on July 23, Duensing has a 2.18 ERA with 21 strikeouts to just seven walks and two home runs allowed in 41 1/3 innings. If the playoffs started today, it's likely Duensing would be one of the Twins' top three starting pitchers. Even if he eventually regresses -- which could very well happen -- Duensing has done his job over the past month.
• DH Jim Thome: Funny, the White Sox could use a left-handed power bat, but instead they were stuck watching Thome hit a walk-off, two-run blast in the bottom of the 10th inning last week. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen fell on the Thome grenade the following day. In 269 plate appearances this year, Thome is hitting .271/.394/.588 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs. Since the All-Star break he is hitting .306/.433/.667 with seven home runs. All this production for only $1.5 million. Credit to Gardenhire as well for perfectly managing Thome's workload this season as well.
• LHP Francisco Liriano: Going through what manager Ron Gardenhire described as a "tired arm" period, Liriano will have his next scheduled start pushed back to Thursday in Texas, when he will face Cliff Lee. Overall, Liriano has been one of the best pitchers in the American League this season, but over his last three starts he has been very mediocre -- a 5.87 ERA with 15 strikeouts to 12 walks in just 15 1/3 innings. Considering he threw nearly 60 innings in winter ball, a dead-arm period isn't surprising. But the Twins need Liriano to pitch like a stud down the stretch, and specifically in the playoffs.
• The Twins continue to score runs at will in the first inning. After tacking on three more in an eventual losing effort on Saturday, the Twins have now scored 106 first-inning runs. The next closest team is St. Louis with 80.
Collectively, Twins hitters hit .325/.401/.506 in the first inning. That .907 OPS is .75 points higher than the Cardinals' .832 mark.
HOW THEY STAND
1. Twins (72-52)
2. Chicago (67-57) 5 GB
3. Detroit (61-63) 11 GB
4. Kansas City (53-71) 19 GB
5. Cleveland (50-74) 22 GB
• RHP Kevin Slowey strained his right triceps and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. This injury is different than the tendinitis he experienced behind his throwing elbow two weeks ago.
• LHP Ron Mahay was placed on the 15-day disabled list after jamming his right shoulder while scrambling for a groundball.
• 1B Justin Morneau (concussion) continues to take batting practice and go through his daily workouts, but there is still no timetable for his return.
• Jose Mijares remains sidelined after surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He will be out until at least the middle of September.
• INF Nick Punto tweaked his hamstring again, thus landing back on the 15-day disabled list only three days after being activated.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: @ Texas, 7:05 p.m. RHP Nick Blackburn (7-7, 6.66) vs. RHP Rich Harden (4-4, 5.45).
• Tuesday: @ Texas, 7:05 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano (15-8, 3.52) vs. RHP Colby Lewis (9-10, 3.37).
• Wednesday: @ Texas, 7:05 p.m. Duensing (7-1, 1.92) vs. LHP C.J. Wilson (12-5, 3.02).
• Thursday: @ Texas, 7:05 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano (11-7, 3.45) vs. LHP Cliff Lee (10-7, 3.09).
• Friday: @ Seattle, 9:10 p.m. RHP Scott Baker (11-9, 4.63) vs. LHP Luke French (2-4, 4.57).
• Saturday: @ Seattle, 3:10 p.m. Blackburn vs. RHP Doug Fister (4-8, 3.92).
• Sunday: @ Seattle, 3:10 p.m. Pavano vs. TBD
All games on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.