State of the Twins, week 21: Blackburn hot; Fuentes trade pays off early
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With a nine-game homestand on the horizon, the Twins currently hold a 4.5-game lead over the White Sox, who lost two out of three to the Yankees at home this weekend.
Here's how things stand through 21 weeks:
• RHP Nick Blackburn: After spending nearly a month at Class-AAA Rochester trying to get himself right, Blackburn has put together back-to-back fantastic starts in his return to the Twins -- three earned runs on 10 hits and two walks in a combined 15 2/3 innings (1.72 ERA), while striking out 11. On Saturday, Blackburn came within one out of his first career shutout, holding Seattle to two hits and two walks.
• The Twins against really good starting pitchers: There are several key ingredients that go into making a deep playoff run, and beating top-of-the-line starting pitchers might top the list. Well, the Twins have certainly held their own against some of the league's best this season, including victories in games started by Cliff Lee, David Price, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Tim Hudson, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver, John Danks, Yovani Gallardo and Justin Verlander.
• 3B Danny Valencia: It feels like Valencia should hit an extended cold stretch at some point, but he has been very consistent since his call-up back in June. Valencia's batting average hasn't dipped below .300 since June 12, and he has reached base safely in 13 of his last 16 games. Over that stretch, Valencia is hitting .339/.373/.518 with seven extra-base hits.
• The offense: It was bound to happen at some point. Since August 21 the Twins are hitting just .218/.297/.318 with 19 extra-base hits and 27 runs in nine games (three runs per game). Prior to that, the Twins hit .304/.360/.481 with 162 extra-base hits and 230 runs in 42 games (5.5 runs per game) between July 3 and August 20. Just a standard, short cold stretch that will likely turn itself around sooner than later.
• OF Jason Repko: He came out of the gates hitting .319/.385/.617 in his first 16 games as a Twin, but since August 11 Repko has just one hit and two walks in 28 plate appearances, dropping his season line to .221/.294/.416. That said, Repko plays fantastic outfield defense, so his presence is an asset even he isn't hitting.
WHEELING AND DEALING
• It looked like the Twins were set to make only one minor trade before the August 31 waiver deadline when they added left-handed reliever Randy Flores, but general manager Bill Smith apparently had another bullet left when he also added lefty Brian Fuentes for a player to be named later.
Fuentes made an immediate impact, striking out left-hander Russell Branyan on four pitches to end Saturday's ballgame.
With Fuentes, Matt Capps, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch, the Twins have a bevy of late-inning relief options these days. Credit Smith for being aggressive in the quest to replace Joe Nathan.
• As a team, according to BillJamesOnline.net, the Twins have a net gain (or loss) of minus-23 bases compared to the major-league average. By comparison, the Twins were plus-67 in 2008 and plus-63 in 2009. Contrary to national opinion, this is no longer a team that thrives on scrappy, aggressive baserunning. Denard Span is a prime example. To go along with his 42 stolen bases over the past two seasons, Span has been caught 14 times (he was thrown out trying to steal third base on Sunday) and picked off 19 times.
HOW THEY STAND
1. Twins (75-56)
2. Chicago (70-60) 4.5 GB
3. Detroit (65-66) 10 GB
4. Kansas City (55-75) 19.5 GB
5. Cleveland (53-77) 21.5 GB
• 2B Orlando Hudson tweaked his ankle while leading off first base on Saturday. He left the game in the bottom of the first inning, but was back in the lineup on Sunday.
• DH Jim Thome left Saturday's game after three innings with stiffness in his lower back. Nothing serious.
• 1B Justin Morneau (concussion) continues to work out at his own pace, and General manager Bill Smith told 1500 ESPN on Friday that the team will refrain from providing any timetables. So, in other words, status quo with Morneau, who has been sidelined since July 7.
• RHP Kevin Slowey remains on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right triceps. He is eligible to return on September 6.
• LHP Ron Mahay (torn right rotator cuff) was moved to the 60-day disabled list to make room for Flores.
• LHP Jose Mijares will be out until at least the middle of September with a torn meniscus. If he comes back before the end of the season, Mijares' presence will only strengthen an already solid bullpen.
• INF Nick Punto (hamstring) is eligible to come off the DL on September 5.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: off day
• Tuesday: vs. Detroit, 7:10 p.m. LHP Brian Duensing (7-2, 2.19) vs. RHP Armando Galarraga (4-5, 4.04).
• Wednesday: vs. Detroit, 7:10 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.41) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (10-9, 3.60).
• Thursday: vs. Detroit, 7:10 p.m. RHP Scott Baker (12-9, 4.55) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (14-8, 3.58).
• Friday: vs. Texas, 7:10 p.m. RHP Nick Blackburn (8-8, 6.02) vs. RHP Rich Harden (5-5, 5.17).
• Saturday: vs. Texas, 3:10 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano (15-10, 3.52) vs. RHP Colby Lewis (9-10, 3.46).
• Sunday: vs. Texas, 1:10 p.m. Duensing vs. LHP C.J. Wilson (13-5, 3.02).
All games on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.