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Updated: September 19th, 2010 11:45pm
State of the Twins, week 25: Starting rotation shaping up for the playoffs?

State of the Twins, week 25: Starting rotation shaping up for the playoffs?

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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The players don't want to discuss it. Manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't want to discuss it.

But despite a 6-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, the Minnesota Twins -- with a magic number of four -- are on the verge of clinching the American League Central.

And with two weeks remaining in the regular season, it's time to start looking at possible combinations for playoff starting rotations.

Gardenhire confirmed Sunday that Scott Baker is scheduled to make his return from elbow tendinitis on Tuesday, taking the place of Carl Pavano, who will have his next start pushed back to Saturday in Detroit.

The Twins starting rotation this week will see Brian Duensing, Baker and Nick Blackburn pitching at home against Cleveland on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by Francisco Liriano, Pavano and Duensing pitching in Detroit over the weekend.

Beyond that -- and this is an educated guess -- the Twins could use the final week of the regular season to set up a playoff rotation of Liriano, Pavano (in either order, although Gardenhire hinted Sunday Liriano is the guy), Duensing and Blackburn.

That would mean starting Blackburn on September 27 at Kansas City, followed by Kevin Slowey and Baker on the 28th and 29th. After that, the Twins could use their preferred four-man rotation in the four-game series against Toronto at Target Field to end the season.

Those four pitchers -- again, likely Liriano, Pavano, Duensing and Blackburn -- would then pitch once again against either the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's how things stand through 25 weeks:

WHO'S HOT
3B Danny Valencia: Since coming back from a sore hamstring last week, Valencia has not missed a beat, hitting his third and fourth home runs of the season on Friday and Saturday against Oakland. Saturday's blast was the deciding factor in the Twins' 4-2 win. Valencia, now hitting .336/.379/.462 on the season, has still managed to avoid going through an extended cold stretch in 269 plate appearances (knock on wood).

RHP Nick Blackburn: Along with Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn continues to make a strong case to land a spot in the Twins' playoff rotation. Despite taking a loss on Friday night against Oakland, Blackburn allowed just three earned runs in seven innings, saying, "I'll take the way I felt tonight," on a regular basis. In five starts since returning to the rotation on August 23, Blackburn has a 1.91 ERA to go along with a 60% groundball rate. Blackburn's career groundball rate is 46%, and Tim Hudson currently leads the majors with a 65% rate. In other words, Blackburn has been death to worms over the past 30 days.

SS J.J. Hardy: Hardy is having a solid month so far in September, hitting .314/.367/.451 with 12 RBIs in 16 games. As mentioned before in this space, if we omit the 11-game stretch where he tried to play through a wrist injury in early June, Hardy is hitting .286/.334/.428. That .762 OPS would rank Hardy first among qualified American League shortstops. His current .715 OPS still ranks him third behind Alexei Ramirez (.737) and Marco Scutaro (.718).

WHO'S NOT
2B Orlando Hudson: In his defense, Hudson has gritted through an ankle injury over the last few weeks, but so far in September he is hitting just .203/.213/.220 with one extra-base hit -- not exactly setting the table for the middle of the lineup. Hudson also made an odd base-running mistake on Friday night against Oakland when he attempted to run from second to third on a routine groundball to shortstop by Delmon Young. Hudson was gunned down by a wide margin.

NUMBERS GAME

• With all of the aforementioned talk about Blackburn's groundball rate, it's interesting to note that the Twins offense, collectively, has hit the fewest fly balls (31.6%) of any team in baseball.

• Outfielder Ben Revere tallied the first hit of his major league career on Sunday.

HOW THEY STAND
AL Central
1. Twins (89-60)
2. Chicago (79-70) 10 GB
3. Detroit (75-74) 14 GB
4. Cleveland (62-87) 27 GB
5. Kansas City (61-87) 27.5 GB

It should be noted that the White Sox have now lost six in a row, including three straight to the Tigers after the Twins swept them earlier in the week.

AL best record
1. Yankees (90-59)
2. Rays (89-59) .5 GB
3. Twins (89-60) 1 GB
4. Rangers (83-65) 6.5 GB

HEALTH REPORT
• C Joe Mauer left Sunday's game with a jammed knee, as the Twins described it, but the injury isn't expected to keep him out long.
• OF Denard Span missed the Oakland series with a bruised shoulder. His status is considered day-to-day.
• 1B Justin Morneau (concussion) is still hanging around the ballpark, but his status remains a slight mystery. The clock is ticking.
Brian Fuentes felt no ill effects this week in his four appearances after returning to action with a sore back.
• Put Jose Mijares (knee) in the same category as Fuentes -- no ill effects.
• INF Nick Punto (hamstring) made his first plate appearance on Wednesday since returning from the disabled list. He grounded out to second.
• RHP Scott Baker (elbow tendinitis) threw a bullpen session on Saturday morning, and there's a good chance he starts in place of Carl Pavano on Tuesday.

THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: vs. Cleveland, 7:10 p.m. Duensing (9-2, 2.07) vs. RHP Jeanmar Gomez (3-4, 4.02).
• Tuesday: vs. Cleveland, 7:10 p.m. Baker (12-9, 4.60) vs. RHP Fausto Carmona (12-14, 3.81).
• Wednesday: vs. Cleveland, 12:10 p.m. Blackburn (9-10, 5.43) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (1-0, 2.70).
• Thursday: off day
• Friday: @ Detroit, 6:05 p.m. Liriano (14-8, 3.44) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (17-8, 3.46).
• Saturday: @ Detroit, 6:05 p.m. Pavano (17-11, 3.60) vs. RHP Jeremy Bonderman (8-9, 4.92).
• Sunday: @ Detroit, 12:05 p.m. Duensing vs. RHP Rick Porcello (9-11, 5.10).

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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