Thursday, August 12, 2004

Put Up or Shut Up

This is it. Now is the time when we will see whether or not these Minnesota Twins are for real. While yesterday's 4-3 loss to the Mariners (the second straight such loss) may have ended on a couple of flukey plays, the fact still remains that it was still a loss, yet another against a bad team. The Twins now have a record of 62-51, three games ahead of the Indians (60-55) and five games ahead of the White Sox (56-55). I'm just about ready to write off the White Sox, who have been struggling to score runs with their best two hitters (Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas) on the disabled list. Since these two guys are probably out for the remainder of the season, and since the Sox pitching was never that good in the first place, I highly doubt that the South Siders will make much noise in the AL Central Division race.

The Indians, on the other hand, are a completely different story. This is a young team that is fiery, plays hard, and is hungry to win. The same formula allowed the 2001 Twins to win 85 games and set the stage for back-to-back playoff appearances. However, this Indians team has much more talent than the Twins of three years ago. First of all, they hit the snot out of the ball. Victor Martinez (18 HRs, 84 RBIs, .885 OPS) and North Dakota native Travis Hafner (22 HRs, 88 RBIs, 1.007 OPS) are having breakout seasons. They are two of the best young hitters in the game right now and pose a formidable threat in the middle of the Cleveland lineup. Matt Lawton is also having a nice comeback season for the Indians after suffering from various injuries the past few years. Twins castoff Casey Blake is having a solid year and is outhitting Corey Koskie by a very large margin. Even veterans Omar Vizquel and Ronnie Belliard are enjoying offensive renaissances as members of this Cleveland team.

As unimpressive as the Twins' hitting has been this season, Cleveland's pitching has been perhaps even LESS impressive, if that's even possible. Cleveland has a team ERA of 4.86, third-worst in the American League (the Twins are first in the AL with a 4.04 team ERA). Their starting rotation has had two solid starters this year: ace C.C. Sabathia (9-6, 3.77) and undeserving All-Star Jake Westbrook (10-5, 3.61). After that, it seems to go downhill pretty fast. Lefty Cliff Lee has 10 wins and was pretty effective until the last six weeks or so, and his season ERA is an unimpressive 4.77. The Indians are also sending out Scott Elarton and Chad Durbin every five days, which certainly doesn't say much about their starting rotation. I'll take an inconsistent Kyle Lohse and a washed-up Terry Mulholland over those two any day.

The Indian's bullpen is where the Twins really have a marked advantage on their pursuers from Ohio. The Indians have blown and astounding 24 saves this season and their bullpen has an ERA of 5.32 and a WHIP of 1.53. By comparison, the Twins' bullpen has blown just 9 saves this season (6 by Fultz and Romero) and has an ERA of 3.71. If the Indians had even an average bullpen they would have overtaken our Twins long ago. The recent return of Bob Wickman has brought some stability to the closer's role for Cleveland (he's 6 for 7 in save opportunities) but that doesn't change the fact that this bullpen has cost this team many many victories this season.

However, I digress from the matter at hand: the Seattle Mariners. I'm willing to dismiss the past seven games; let's pretend they don't matter that much. The Twins are still in first place by three full games, they still play a last-place team this afternoon, and they still have the best pitcher in the American League on the mound to face said last-place team. Things may look a bit bleak right now, but there is no reason to think that another patented Johan-esque performance won't turn everything back around.

I hate to say this on August 12, but today's series finale is a must-win game for the Twins. Because they are such a streaky team, they need to gain a little momentum as they head into Cleveland for a key three-game series this upcoming weekend. As I've discussed in this post, Cleveland is a team with some definite strengths (hitting) and weaknesses (pitching). On the surface, the Twins appear to match up quite well with the Indians, whom they have beaten four times in six games already this season. But championships aren't won and lost on paper--they're won on the playing field. We'll just have wait and see what happens.

Thanks for stopping by Twins Chatter today. Our readership numbers seem to be leveling out, which is good. Tomorrow I'll have some reactions to Thursday's game as well as an extensive preview of this weekend's big series against the second-place Indians. So long, everybody.