After committing--finally--to a youth movement that includes a 22-year-old ace,Minnesota is the majors' hottest team
When the Twinsmade their first trip to Texas two months ago, they were an anemic-hitting clubwith a pitching staff in shambles. When they returned to Ameriquest Field lastweekend, they were a team no contender wanted to face. With baseball's bestpair of aces (lefthanders Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, who were acombined 14--2 with a 2.06 ERA since May 19), a superior defense and a balancedlineup (since June 8 they've led the majors with a .371 on-base percentage andranked second with a .295 average), Minnesota marched into the All-Star breakas baseball's hottest team, winning 22 of its last 28. "You look across thefield and see a different team," Rangers shortstop Michael Young said lastSaturday after losing to the Twins 4--0. "They've got no seriousholes."
What's been thedifference? Aside from the hot bats of catcher Joe Mauer (a league-leading .378average at week's end) and his roommate, first baseman Justin Morneau (73RBIs), the Twins' surge is largely due to the organization's much belatedcommitment to youth. Since June 15 Minnesota has released free-agent signeeTony Batista (.303 OBP and six errors in 50 games at third base), unloadedshortstop Juan Castro (.258 OBP) to the Reds and designated another off-seasonpickup, DH Rondell White (.182 average), for assignment. Now thriving in theirplaces: 28-year-old third baseman Nick Punto (.350 average in his last 10games), 26-year-old shortstop Jason Bartlett (.312 average, .411 OBP throughSunday) and 24-year-old outfielder Jason Kubel (seven home runs), each of whomis also a defensive upgrade. "The Batista signing, I didn'tunderstand," a Twins player said last weekend. "And we expect Rondellto be an every-day DH even though he's never been one? From Opening Day weshould have just gone with the kids."
Minnesota'sbiggest misstep was not immediately slotting the 22-year-old Liriano in therotation. For more than six weeks he worked out of the bullpen as starters KyleLohse and Carlos Silva languished with a combined 7.18 ERA. Liriano at last gotthe call on May 19; since then he's simply been baseball's most devastatinghurler. At week's end the rookie All-Star was 10--1 with 102 strikeouts in 881/3 innings and a league-leading 1.83 ERA. Liriano's arsenal includes a 97-mphfastball, a changeup that he locates with precision and two variations of his90-mph slider (one that dips and one that cuts). Since his arrival in themajors last August, Liriano has been a protégé of Santana's, adopting hisworkout routine and sitting in on nearly all of his bullpen sessions. "Iwant to be just like him," says the soft-talking Liriano, whom teammatescall Franchise. Liriano's impersonation of the 2004 Cy Young Award winner hasbeen spot-on so far. "His stuff is sick," says Rangers second basemanIan Kinsler, who describes Liriano's delivery as "herky-jerky.""You can't sit on one pitch because he commands his slider and changeup aswell as his fastball."
The Twins' reasonfor holding Liriano back: The Dominican Republic native hadn't done enough toearn a place in the rotation. "He spent a good part of spring training atthe [World Baseball Classic], so he didn't really have a chance to compete fora starting spot," says pitching coach Rick Anderson. That hesitation likelycost Minnesota a chance at a playoff berth. Despite their incendiary play, theTwins still trailed the Tigers by 11 games in the AL Central and the White Soxby nine in the wild-card race at week's end.
Last Saturday,Minnesota inched closer in the standings as Liriano tossed his second straightshutout and Bartlett drilled a two-run double in the win over Texas."Everyone's getting a preview of how awesome this team is going to be,"says Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter, "but we're not giving up on thisseason just yet."
New Kids on theMound
Francisco Liriano isn't the only rookie strutting his stuff. First-yearstarting pitchers this season have combined for more wins at the All-Star breakthan any rookie crop in the era of divisional play. Here are the top five inthat span.
Justin Verlander (above), Tigers (10)
Kazuhisa Ishii, Dodgers (11)
Dontrelle Willis, Marlins (9)
Ben Sheets, Brewers (10)
Dave Rozema, Tigers (8)
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
DARREN CARROLL (LIRIANO)
KIDSTUFF - Tops in the AL with a 1.83 ERA, Liriano has baffled hitters with hisdiverse pitches and deceptive delivery.
CHUCK RYDLEWSKI/WIREIMAGE.COM (VERLANDER)