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Posted: Wednesday July 23, 2008 11:37AM; Updated: Wednesday July 23, 2008 3:15PM
John Donovan John Donovan >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Surprising Twins keep winning (cont.)

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Denard Span
Youngsters like 24-year-old Denard Span have done a more than passable imitation of the stars they replaced to keep the Twins in contention.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
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How they've won, of course, is what has the unknowing shaking their heads. Their rotation consists of the 33-year-old Hernandez (who has not been good) and four guys under 27 years old, all of whom are on track to put in more innings in a season than they ever have. Two of the starters (Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins) didn't have a start in the majors before this season (Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are the other starters). Their bullpen, statistically, is merely middle of the road, though Nathan is one of the best closers in baseball.

They have a pair of 22-year-olds in left and center (Young and Gomez), a 24-year-old rookie in right field (Denard Span, subbing for the injured Michael Cuddyer), a 23-year-old second baseman (Alexi Casilla) and a fill-in left side of the infield (right now, third baseman Brian Buscher and shortstop Brendan Harris, though Nick Punto is working his way back into the lineup for Harris at short). Yet the young pitchers have done well enough, and that lineup has been good for 4.9 runs a game, fifth in the AL.

"They're a very impressive group of guys," Joe Crede, the All-Star third baseman for the White Sox, said recently. "I mean, they're tough outs. And when you get those kinds of guys at the top and the bottom of the lineup, and you got [first baseman Justin] Morneau and [catcher Joe] Mauer in the middle to drive them in, it makes for a great offense.

"They're definitely not going to go away. They're going to be right there. To the end."

A lot of people around baseball wonder if that's true. Gomez, for example, is in a month-long slump (.177). Blackburn was beat up by the Yankees in a start Monday. The refrain remains the same; they'll wear down, they won't be able to handle the pressure, they don't know how to win.

"You have to go through it. You have to gain that experience," Mauer says. "We have a young team this year, a really young team, I guess you would say. But I've been saying all along, there's no doubt about their talent. If we can keep playing well together, we can gain that experience."

There's evidence that despite a rough series against the Yankees this week, the Twins will be fine. Blackburn has struggled lately, but the other starters -- other than Hernandez -- are throwing well. Perkins is 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his last six starts.

(The Twins also have an ace in the minors that, on his imminent callup, could equal the best trade that any contender will make. Former phenom Francisco Liriano, who missed all of last year after Tommy John surgery, is 9-0 in his last 10 starts for Class AAA Rochester with a 2.65 ERA. In his last five starts for the Red Wings, he's allowed one run in 35 innings, an 0.26 ERA. Tuesday, in a shutout win over Toledo, Liriano struck out 10 in seven innings and set down the side in the first on 15 pitches.)

(Another aside on that: Liriano's agent, Greg Genske, wants his client back with the big club so badly that last week he asked the players association to investigate why Liriano hasn't yet been called up. That didn't sit well with Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, who insists that the rotation is filled, for now, and notes that the Twins already have two lefties in the bullpen.)

Hitting-wise, for all the uproar in Minnesota about moving the speedy but struggling Gomez down in the lineup, most of the rest of the hitters are performing well. Over the last month (before Tuesday's games), Young was hitting .377 with a .395 on-base percentage; Casilla was at .344/.368; Mauer .296/.427; and Morneau .365/.466 with a .612 slugging percentage. In that time frame, no team in the league has a better on-base percentage (.369).

The Twins face some challenges in the upcoming weeks, not the least of which is their schedule. Late in August, they embark on a monster 14-day road trip, in part to avoid the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. They're home less than a week, then head out on a 10-day jag.

For all the doubts, this does not look like a team that's playing over its head. It's not overachieving. Nathan grimaces at the mere mention of that word.

"We don't feel like we're overachieving. That's one thing. We feel like we're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing," the All-Star closer said. "Other people won't say that. We don't know how long we have to keep doing this until people say we're not overachieving. It's always like we've got to surprise people."

That's getting harder to do every day. At least it should be.

 
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