Friday, May 20, 2011

Twins have nowhere to go but up

It is a downright shame that the Rapture has to take place within the midst of the Twins’ best stretch of baseball thus far in the 2011 season.  It is particularly more disappointing considering the recent strides some key players have made over the past couple of weeks.
For starters, suddenly the rotation doesn’t look like such a boondoggle.
Francisco Liriano discontinued his usage of the two-seam fastball and went back to what worked for him in 2010 – the four-seamer, change-up and slider trinity. Equally important to his improvement was his ability to pepper the strike zone early in the count and work ahead of his opponents. The results in his most recent start -- albeit against the woeful Mariners lineup -- suggest that this is the approach would put him back on track as the dominating pitcher from a year ago.  
Coming off now four straight quality starts, Nick Blackburn, as he demonstrated in yesterday’s game, has diversified his pitches more. This has been keeping opponents off-balanced and getting them to beat the ball in to the ground. A year ago, Blackburn fell into the pattern of using his two-seamer far too frequently and hitters jumped all over that. Over the winter, Russell Branyan, who faced Blackburn while in an Indians uniform, told him that hitters picked up on that fact quickly. This year, with his elbow repaired, Blackburn has started off hitters with a fastball far less often than he did last year (46% in ’11 versus 55% in ’10) which has helped him to a team-best in ERA (3.40) and xFIP (4.08).
In the bullpen, Joe Nathan has also looks like he has turned a corner in his recovery. At the beginning of the season, Nathan was a facsimile of his former self – unable to neither generate velocity nor dispatch his deadly slider. As such, few opponents chased after anything not thrown in the zone and punished anything that dared fly into their wheelhouse. He finished the season’s initial month with a 10.00 ERA, allowing 11 runs in nine innings of work while posting a 7-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This month, with a heavier reliance on his curve and improvement in the velocity department, Nathan has gotten hitters to chase more pitches out of the zone and missed more bats. The end result in May has been significantly better: a 1.80 ERA with just one run allowed in his last five outings.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the baseball, the Twins have seen some players begin to emerge from their early season doldrums as well.
Having been discussed repetitively during each one of his at-bats during the FSN broadcasts for the past few weeks, Justin Morneau’s mechanical problems did not hamper him in Oakland.  With his second home run of the season and adding a double for good measure, Morneau appeared to be keeping his weight back more with his front side locked in rather than pulling away from the plate.  Admittedly, the A’s did not follow suit as previous teams did by pitching Morneau away, instead leaving some offerings over the plate. To his credit, the first baseman capitalized on those mistakes and that is perhaps a sign that the slugger is poised to contribute more regularly.
After a brutal month of April, Michael Cuddyer has accumulated base hits by the bushel in May. Following a 3-for-4 day at the plate yesterday, he’s now hitting .333 this month and has resurrected his overall average back up to .267 after entering May hitting .226. Admittedly, he still lacks the power that he had shown two seasons ago, but getting on-base and avoiding outs is a big step forward.
Likewise, Trevor Plouffe has been a refreshing oasis in the desert of disappointing offensive shortstops, giving the Twins someone with a stick to hit in the second spot in the order. Although defensively Plouffe needs some work – often taking ill-advised routes to groundballs, bobbling others and throwing away every third chance – he has come through with some very clutch hits as of late. Though the defense may need work, management will grit their teeth and suffer through it in order to have someone who can wield some lumber.
If these and other players around them continue to make progress and sustain production, though it would take a near miracle, the opportunity exists to chip away at the deficit the team created in April and potentially re-enter the division race. Considering the Twins have played the fewest amount of games at home in the American League (15) and have a large portion of contests remaining within the division, there is a chance for the team to climb the standings. And it could happen sooner rather than later. In addition to returning to Target Field on Monday for the week, the Twins have 10 consecutive games against AL Central opponents following that.
Could a big run now be enough to give the team with baseball’s worst record a shot at drawing closer to contention prior to the trade deadline?
It is unfortunate that the world has to end so soon without fans being able to receive an answer. Then again, maybe it is for the best that the apocalypse happens now rather than after the team heats up. After all, somewhere in the Bible it says the last shall be first and, at this point, the Twins have nowhere to go but up.