A few days before the All-Star break Twins pitching coach Rick
Anderson met with his beleaguered staff in a session that would
have made Dr. Phil proud. A monthlong run of bad outings, during
which the starters had a combined 7.37 ERA, was a major reason
why Minnesota had fallen from first place in the American League
Central, five games ahead of the Royals on June 14, to third
place, 7 1/2 games behind Kansas City on July 13.
One by one the pitchers opened up about their struggles to the
group. Righthander Brad Radke, a plate-nibbling finesse pitcher
who rarely throws in the 90s, said there were times when he found
himself trying to throw 100 mph. Righthander Kyle Lohse conceded
he was also guilty of overthrowing. Righthander Joe Mays admitted
that he was too preoccupied with trying to make each pitch
perfect. And so on.
"Everyone in the rotation looked like they were pressing, trying
to do way more than what they're capable of," Anderson says.
"That's what I wanted to address."
"The expectations for this team and this pitching staff coming
into this season were big," says Radke, "and [the starters] got
caught up in them and put too much pressure on ourselves."
After they advanced to the League Championship Series last year,
the Twins were picked by many to run away with the division this
season, even to win 100 games. None of that is going to happen,
but at least Minnesota (67-63) had scrambled back to within 1
1/2 games of the AL Central-leading White Sox after beating the
Royals 8-1 on Sunday. "We're a better team than we've shown,"
says closer Eddie Guardado, who converted nine of 10 save
opportunities and had a 1.80 ERA in the second half through
Sunday, "but the important thing is that we're still in the hunt."
That's partly because the starting pitching has been much
improved (17-9, 4.30 ERA) since the All-Star break. The most
consistent pitcher of late has been lefthander Johan Santana, who
was 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA since taking a permanent spot in the
rotation on July 11. To help the Twins' other starters, who were
frequently overthrowing, Anderson instructed them to throw only
in the lower half of the strike zone during bullpen sessions
between starts. He told them that he wants to see the catchers'
mitts moving downward to receive every pitch during those
workouts. "If they're constantly throwing to the glove in the
bullpen," says Anderson, "then go into a game with the adrenaline
[pumping], everything they throw [will go high in the strike
A perfect example is Radke, a former All-Star and 20-game winner.
At the break he was 5-9 with a 5.49 ERA, one of the worst first
halves of his nine-year career. But since he's been focusing on
keeping his pitches down, Radke has performed more like an ace,
going 4-1 with a 3.94 ERA.
The Twins' best pitcher for the season's first 2 1/2 months was
Lohse, who had six wins and a 2.91 ERA by mid-June. Then he
suddenly and inexplicably lost his command; his ERA for five
starts in July was 11.51. "People began talking about Kyle as a
new ace, and that got to him," says Anderson. Lohse has since
settled down, going 4-1 with a 4.32 ERA in August. Lefthander
Kenny Rogers (3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his last three starts
through Sunday) says that he's also been more relaxed on the
Fortunately for Minnesota, it has the league's easiest remaining
schedule, with 25 of its final 31 games against teams with losing
records. However, a favorable schedule means nothing if the
rotation doesn't do its part. "We feel like we're beginning to
click," Lohse says of the starters, "but we need to really pick
it up. Then maybe everyone will forget about how bad we were in
the first half."
COLOR PHOTO: ELAINE THOMPSON/AP Radke was 4-1 in the second half through Sunday, while Santana(inset) has been solid since joining the Twins' rotation on July11.
COLOR PHOTO: DUANE BURELSON/AP (INSET) [See caption above]