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Updated: September 12th, 2010 4:56pm
State of the Twins, week 23: Bullpen back to full strength

State of the Twins, week 23: Bullpen back to full strength

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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With a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox on the horizon, the Minnesota Twins first had to take care of business in Cleveland on Sunday, and they did so, securing a 6-2 win and a series victory.

The Twins (39-16 since the All-Star break) have seemingly spent the entire summer trying to play catch-up in the wake of Joe Nathan's season-ending elbow surgery, adding pieces, shuffling pitchers around, and waiting for everyone to be healthy at the same time.

Jon Rauch did a serviceable job as closer for the first four months of the season, but as expected, he showed vulnerability, and the depth behind him was thin. Realizing this, the Twins acquired Matt Capps from the Washington Nationals on July 29 -- an acquisition that was more about strengthening bullpen depth than finding a lights-out closer. Capps has pitched 20 innings for the Twins, posting a 2.70 ERA with 14 strikeouts and six unintentional walks.

After Capps arrived, Rauch and Matt Guerrier both hit rough patches, and Jose Mijares went down with a torn meniscus, leaving the bullpen somewhat thin again. So, once again, general manager Bill Smith sought outside help, trading for left-hander Brian Fuentes.

Of course, Fuentes -- after having faced just one batter on August 28 in Seattle -- sat out for two weeks with a sore back.

As of Sunday, however, it appears that the bullpen is back to full strength. Fuentes returned to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth inning, and Mijares was activated from the disabled list on Saturday. On top of that, Jesse Crain (0.99 ERA, 44 strikeouts and 17 walks in 45 2/3 innings since May 20) continues to be one of the best relievers in baseball, Guerrier (two consecutive flawless appearances) has shown signs of straightening things out, and Rauch... Well, he's had trouble finding consistency since mid-July or so, but he has potential to be operative.

Heading into the Chicago series on Tuesday, the Twins are looking at a crowded late-inning bridge that now includes two lefties (Fuentes, Mijares), four righties (Capps, Rauch, Guerrier, Crain), and three guys who have closed at some point this season (Capps, Fuentes, Rauch).

A crowded bridge is a good problem to have.

Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship, Pat Neshek, Alex Burnett and Randy Flores will continue to serve as innings munchers, when needed.

Meanwhile, the White Sox have Manny Ramirez. But they also trail the Twins by six games with 19 to play. Even if the Twins finish, say, 8-11, the White Sox would need to go 14-5.

Here's how things stand through 23 weeks:

WHO'S HOT
RHP Nick Blackburn: He was featured in this space last week, but Blackburn is too hot not to mention again. His Jekyll and Hyde nature this season has been somewhat mystifying, but he's back on the right path once again. Since being called up from Class-AAA Rochester on August 23, Blackburn has a 1.47 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, and he is inducing 58% groundballs -- a number that would put Blackburn among the league's elite if he could maintain it over the course of a full season.

RHP Carl Pavano: Wait, how can Pavano be "hot" if he is 1-3 in his last four starts?

Because pitcher wins are irrelevant.

Despite "losing" three of his last four starts, Pavano has pitched 31 of a possible 36 innings, allowing only 11 earned runs (3.19 ERA), 27 hits and five walks while striking out 11. Pavano has now pitched at least seven innings in 20 of 29 starts this season, and his 205 total innings rank third in the American League behind Felix Hernandez (225 2/3) and C.C. Sabathia (209).

LHP Francisco Liriano: After hitting a rough patch in mid-August, Liriano has a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings over his last three starts. Over that span he has allowed just 17 hits and two walks while striking out 17. Liriano has also allowed the fewest home runs (4) of any qualified starting pitcher, and he deserves a contract extension after the season.

• Heck, the entire pitching staff: Over the last 20 games, the Twins have allowed four runs or fewer 18 times. Talk about consistency. The Twins are 14-6 over that span with a 2.66 team ERA.

DH Jim Thome: Thome's latest clutch home run gave the Twins a 1-0 win over the Indians on Saturday night, and it moved him into sole possession of eighth place on the all-time list. Over his last five games, Thome is 7-for-14 with five home runs, a double, nine RBIs, 10 runs scored and six walks. His 1.040 OPS in 306 plate appearances this season would rank as his highest mark since posting a 1.122 OPS with the Indians in 2002 -- a season in which Thome hit .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs.

WHO'S NOT
LHP Randy Flores: The Twins acquired Randy Flores in August as a lefty specialist, and he has not quite lived up to that title. Flores has faced eight left-handed batters since joining the team, and seven of them have reached base (six hits, one walk).

On Saturday night, Flores gave up back-to-back singles in the 11th inning to lefties Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, only to have Guerrier come in and save the day. According to the Star Tribune, manager Ron Gardenhire spoke with Flores after the game, later telling reporters, "If I wanted a fastball thrown I would have put a righthander in."

If Fuentes and Mijares remain healthy, Flores won't be pitching in many high-leverage situations anyways.

NUMBERS GAME
• Sunday's win over Cleveland was the Twins' 4,000th win since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1960.

• The Twins have hit into a league-leading 148 groundball double plays this season, which puts them on pace for 168 on the season. The 1990 Boston Red Sox hold the major league record of 174. This might go down to the wire.

• This is more random than relevant, but in looking back at previous American League Central division races, I found the 1995 standings to be quite mind-blowing:

Indians: 100-44
Royals: 70-74 (30 GB)
White Sox: 68-76 (32 GB)
Brewers: 65-79 (35 GB)
Twins 56-88 (44 GB)

This was a strike-shortened season that didn't begin until April 27, but the Indians clinched the division on September 8, nonetheless. And they cleared every team by 30 games.

HOW THEY STAND

AL Central
1. Twins (85-58)
2. Chicago (79-64) 6 GB
3. Detroit (72-72) 13.5 GB
4. Kansas City (58-84) 26.5 GB
5. Cleveland (58-85) 27 GB

AL best record
1. Yankees (87-56)
2. Rays (86-56) .5 GB
3. Twins (85-58) 2 GB
4. Rangers (80-63) 7 GB

HEALTH REPORT
• 1B Justin Morneau (concussion) said he was "encouraged" and "optimistic" about returning before the end of the season.
• 3B Danny Valencia (hamstring) returned to the starting lineup on Friday.
• Fuentes (back), who received a precautionary MRI earlier in the week, threw a successful bullpen session on Saturday, and he is available heading into this week.
• Mijares (knee) threw a successful simulated game on Friday night, and he was activated from the disabled list on Saturday.
• INF Nick Punto (hamstring) returned from the disabled list on Friday afternoon, although he still isn't 100%.
• RHP Scott Baker remains sidelined with elbow tendinitis. He is expected to return within the next week or two.

THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: off day
• Tuesday: @ White Sox, 7:10 p.m. Liriano (13-7, 3.24) vs. LHP John Danks (13-10, 3.54).
• Wednesday: @ White Sox, 7:10 p.m. LHP Brian Duensing (8-2, 2.02) vs. RHP Gavin Floyd (10-12, 3.91).
• Thursday: @ White Sox, 7:10 p.m. Pavano (16-11, 3.47) vs. LHP Mark Buerhle (12-10, 3.99).
• Friday: vs. Oakland, 7:10 p.m. Blackburn (9-9, 5.51) vs. LHP Brett Anderson (5-6, 2.94).
• Saturday: vs. Oakland, 12:10 p.m. RHP Kevin Slowey (12-6, 4.24) vs. RHP Dallas Braden (9-11, 3.40).
• Sunday: vs. Oakland, 1:10 p.m. Liriano vs. TBD

All games on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

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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