Holes in the Lineup
June 21, 2009

Followers of the Minnesota Twins might do well to file away the date June 21, 2009 (Father’s Day) in their memory banks as the day when it all started to unravel.

The Twins dropped their second in a three-game home series with the Houston Astros, going down timidly against something called a Wandy Rodriguez. Astros pitcher Wandy limited Minnesota to two hits and one run in his seven innings on the mound. Inter-league opponents usually are easy pickings for the Twins, especially at home. Houston entered the game with 31 wins against 35 losses, good for fifth place in the National League Central Division, yet the Astros on Father’s Day resembled the 1961 Yankees.

Minnesota starter Glen Perkins started the game by giving the 39,659 fans in attendance his imitation of Houston batting practice pitchers. Leadoff hitters Michael Bourn and Jeff Keppinger singled. Miguel Tejada, hitting in the third spot, doubled, and it was 2-0 before a lot of dads in the audience had settled into their chairs. Another double by Hunter Pence scored Tejada, and it was 3-0. That was it. Game over. Houston wins. (The shutout, however, was spoiled by a Michael Cuddyer homer.)

The Twins entered the contest with several holes in their every day lineup and a shaky pitching staff. Justin Morneau, he of the .320 batting average, did not enter the fray, ending his consecutive game streak at 319. Manager Ron Gardenhire was forced to start Matt Tolbert, he of the .173 batting average at second, replacing Nick Punto who once again banged himself up with one of his patented suicidal dives at first base. Right fielder Justin Kubel became sick in the third inning and had to be replaced. Kubel should be excused because watching his teammates perform would make anyone throw up. And yes, the usual leadoff man Denard Span was on the disabled list with an inner ear inflection, so the desperate Gardenhire was forced to lead off with Carlos Gomez, who among other things, has become adept at bunting balls off his forehead.

Even Joe Mauer was mesmerized by the Wandy man and reliever Jose Valverde, going 0-for-4 and dropping his average to .407, still a highly respectable number. Batting average does not tell the entire story with the phenomenal Mauer, however. A better statistic for all hitters is OPS, which combines on-base percentage (including walks) and slugging average. Going into Sunday’s game, Mauer’s OPS was .1129 (anything more than .1000 is considered superior). Contrast this with teammate Delmon Young who arrived in Minnesota with the reputation of a slugger but, in fact, is a singles hitter who hacks away, frequently at the first pitch. Young’s OPS is .593. As for Tolbert, his OPS figure is .489. Morneau’s OPS is .968.

Even with the wide disparity between lineup members, the Twins would have more wins this year were it not for certain absences of quality in the starting pitcher department. The prime suspect here is Francisco Liriano who continues to delight opposing hitters while suffering through his long recovery from Tommy John surgery. To say he is not the pitcher he once was is, at best, an understatement. Liriano, who was last shelled in an 8-2 loss to Pittsburgh at the Metrodome on June 17, has lost five of his last six decisions and his won-loss record stands at 2-8. Prior to his season-ending Tommy John surgery in 2006, Liriano posted a record of 13-5 with an ERA of 2.74. Since returning from the surgery, he has posted a minor and major league combined record of 18-15 with an abysmal ERA of 5.91. While Liriano takes the prize as the most ineffectual starter, Scott Baker is not far behind. Once a reliable stopper, Baker has blundered this year to a 4-6 record and an ERA of 5.22. Perkins (2-4) is not much better with a 5.10 ERA.

For the second season in succession the bullpen, with the exception of closer Joe Nathan, has proved unreliable. Gardenhire has been unsuccessful in tossing in any dependable set-up men. Failed New York Yankee hurler, left-hander Senn Henn is particularly galling. Since his recall from AAA Rochester, Henn has a 0-3 record and a whopping 7.36 ERA. The erratic Jesse Crain has been dispatched to Rochester, and Luis Ayala, who couldn’t cut the mustard with the woeful Washington Nationals in 2008, is 1-2 with an ERA of 4.18. Others have given up key runs in crucial situations prior to Father’s Day.

If the Twins (currently 35-36) see any light at the end of the tunnel, the team should exercise caution. That light may be an oncoming train. Minnesota hits the road with inter-league contests at Milwaukee and St. Louis, followed by a series in Kansas City with the pesky Royals. The Twins cannot be blamed for looking at this road trip as the beginning of the end.

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