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Updated: April 25th, 2010 9:04pm
State of the Twins, Week 3: Liriano hot, Blackburn not

State of the Twins, Week 3: Liriano hot, Blackburn not

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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The Twins continued the exasperating trend of losing game three of a series in which they won the first two games, but six straight series victories and a 13-6 record to start the season is very impressive.


Here's a look at some of the trends through three weeks:

WHO'S HOT
*Plate discipline:
Entering Sunday's games, the Twins have the most patient lineup in all of baseball. More patient than the Yankees, more patient than the Red Sox, and more patient than the Rays, Phillies and Braves. This is a rarity for manager Ron Gardenhire's offenses. The Twins lead the majors in walk rate (12.7% of plate appearances end in a walk), and they rank fifth in team on-base percentage (.360). Justin Morneau leads the majors in on-base percentage (.506) and walks (19), Joe Mauer ranks in seventh OBP (.453), and Denard Span ranks ninth in walks (14), despite his low batting average.

*Francisco Liriano: The upside of the Twins' pitching rotation hinges almost entirely on the success or failure of Liriano, who to this point in the season has been one of the best pitchers in baseball -- 21 innings, 1.29 ERA, 17 strikeouts, nine walks, zero home runs allowed. Liriano is also back to pumping a 93-94 mph fastball with solid location, and his off-speed stuff has more movement than it did in the two previous seasons. On top of everything else, Liriano is back to inducing a ton of groundballs (51%), much like he did in 2006. This is not a fluke.

*Twins defense: Orlando Hudsons's third-inning bobble of a soft line drive on Saturday night marked only the Twins' second error of the season. The Yankees have committed the second-fewest errors in baseball with six. Of course, errors don't tell the entire story when it comes to defensive ability, but the Twins also rank fifth in Ultimate Zone Rating.

WHO'S NOT
*
Jason Kubel: Even though the Twins offense has scored the fifth-most runs in baseball, Kubel (.169/.310/.288, two HRs) has been late to join the party. Yes, Kubel has drawn 12 walks this season (a good sign), but he also has 16 strikeouts (a bad sign). There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, so don't press the panic button. Kubel has been terrible against right-handed pitching (.156/.269/.311), and his .195 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is frighteningly low, meaning he has been extremely unlucky so far. Both of these trends will almost certainly turn around, so expect a bounce-back from Kubel very soon.

*Nick Blackburn: After having his start pushed back to Saturday because of soreness behind his pitching elbow, Blackburn came out and struggled mightily for the third-straight start, allowing 10 hits, two walks, and five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Royals. Blackburn (6.85 ERA) may have pitched to the top of his capabilities in 2008-2009, so a decline in 2010 shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But this is a bit extreme. Blackburn's already dangerously low strikeout rate has plummeted even further (from 4.29 K/9 in '09 to 2.66 K/9 this year), while his walk rate has risen above three walks per nine innings. In fact, Blackburn has walked more batters (8) than he's punched out (7), with home runs allowed (6) flying down the backstretch.

*Bases loaded hitting: Not good. 4-for-27 (.148).

HEALTH REPORT
* Third baseman Nick Punto was placed on the 15-day disabled list earlier this weekend, retroactive to April 16, with a strained groin and/or hip flexor. An MRI on Punto's groin showed up negative, but team doctors are reportedly checking on his hip now. Luke Hughes was called up from class-AAA Rochester to replace Punto on the 25-man roster.

* Right hander Pat Neshek faced two batters on Saturday night and retired them both. He appears to be fine after having a cortisone shot in his strained finger last weekend.

* Right-hander Clay Condrey felt soreness in his elbow during a bullpen session earlier in the week, and he has been shut down indefinitely.

HOW THEY STAND
1. Twins (13-6)
2. Tigers (10-9)
3. Indians (8-10)
4. White Sox (8-11)
5. Royals (7-11)

THE WEEK AHEAD
Monday: Off
Tuesday: @ Detroit, 6:05 p.m. Probable starters: LHP Francisco Liriano (2-0, 1.29 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-1, 6.95 ERA)
Wednesday: @ Detroit, 6:00 p.m. (ESPN) Probable starters: RHP Scott Baker (2-2, 4.81 ERA) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (1-1, 2.63 ERA)
Thursday: @ Detroit, 12:05 p.m. Probable starters: RHP Carl Pavano (3-1, 4.24 ERA) vs. LHP Dontrelle Willis (0-1, 4.24 ERA)
Friday: @ Cleveland, 6:05 p.m. Probable starters: RHP Nick Blackburn (1-1, 6.85 ERA) vs. RHP Fausto Carmona (3-0, 2.96 ERA)
Saturday: @ Cleveland, 6:05 p.m. Probable starters: RHP Kevin Slowey (2-2, 3.42 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Masterson (0-3, 5.68 ERA)
Sunday: @ Cleveland, 12:05 p.m. Probable starters: Liriano vs. LHP David Huff (1-2, 3.00 ERA)
* 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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