Posted: Wednesday September 22, 2010 1:21AM ; Updated: Wednesday September 22, 2010 1:21AM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Twins are in; Giants await Torres and Lidge looks dominant again

Story Highlights

The Twins can line up their rotation for the playoffs after clinching the division

The Giants overcame another weak night at the plate with outstanding pitching

Phillies closer Brad Lidge is alleviating concerns about their bullpen

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Scott Baker
Twins starter Scott Baker could become a valuable weapon in the playoffs vs. the Rays.
AP

Five cuts from Tuesday's action:

1. The Twins became the first team to clinch a playoff spot -- and their division -- after rallying to beat the Indians in the eighth inning and then witnessing the White Sox lose to the A's.

While the Twins will continue to chase the Yankees, whom they trail by one game, for best record in the league and homefield advantage in the playoffs, wrapping up the AL Central with a week and a half left in the season gives manager Ron Gardenhire the luxury of juggling his rotation to his ideal order. He tipped his hand earlier this week, implying that Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn would be his four starters in October.

Duening has been a revelation for the Twins in 2010. He has pitched so well that he was promoted from long relief to likely postseason starter by virtue of his 10-2 record, 2.19 ERA and 1.13 WHIP -- the latter two and his winning percentage are all the best among Minnesota's six primary starters.

Whether the Twins edge the Yankees for the AL's top seed or not, they are likely to draw the Rays in the first round -- as the top seed, they'd draw the wild card anyway, but even as the No. 2 seed they'd draw the wild card because two teams from the same division can't play in the ALDS. If indeed Minnesota plays Tampa Bay, Gardenhire might want to at leas think about starting righthander Scott Baker over the lefty Duensing.

Of the Twins' likely playoff opponents, the Rays are the only team who fares better against lefty starters, going 34-17 (.667) against southpaws and 55-44 (.556) against righties. Baker -- who allowed one earned run and struck out seven over five innings against Cleveland on Tuesday -- has been brilliant against the Rays this year, yielding just one earned run in 15 innings over two starts.

Duensing, however, remains the clear favorite to start over Baker in a possible ALCS with New York or Texas. The Yankees are 31-23 (.574) against lefty starters and 61-36 (.629) against righties; the Rangers' split is even more lopsided, 24-22 (.522) against lefties and 59-45 (.628) against righties.

2. On Tuesday night the Giants scored two or fewer runs for the fifth time in the eight games outfielder Andres Torres has missed after having emergency appendectomy surgery -- but for the second time they won when scoring so few times thanks to another brilliant pitching performance.

Matt Cain threw six shutout innings, which were followed by three perfect frames from the bullpen as San Francisco beat the Cubs 1-0 to cling to a narrow half-game lead over the Padres in the National League West and extend its advantage over the Rockies to 2 1/2 games.

Torres has been San Francisco's unexpected sparkplug this season with a team-leading 64 extra-base hits, a total that ranks tied for eighth in the NL. He has 14 home runs that have mostly come in key spots -- five have come in tied ballgames and five more when the score was within two runs. Similarly, 35 of his 43 doubles and three of his seven triples have come when the game was either tied or neither team led by more than two runs.

The Giants managed no runs off Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, but rookie catcher Buster Posey homered in the eighth off reliever Andrew Cashner for the game's only run. Torres took some soft-toss swings before Tuesday's game -- his first cuts of any kind since the operation -- but is uncertain to play in this weekend's series in Denver, where scoring is especially important: the Rockies are averaging 6.0 runs per game at home compared to 3.7 on the road.

3. The clubs chasing the Giants had a bout of offensive role reversal on Tuesday. The Padres, who enjoyed a complete-game shutout from starter Clayton Richard, came through with timely hitting to beat the Dodgers 6-0; the Rockies, meanwhile, nicked Diamondbacks starter Joe Saunders for just one run in eight innings and fell 3-1.

Saunders was so efficient that Colorado did not draw a walk and only had two at-bats the whole game with a runner in scoring position. Ryan Spilborghs delivered a pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth inning, while Melvin Mora lined out to left with runners on first and second and two outs in the fourth.

San Diego again benefited from the insertion of Ryan Ludwick into the No. 5 hole. Ludwick batted with at least one runner in scoring position in four of his five plate appearance, and in three of them he delivered -- a two-RBI single, an RBI hit-by-pitch and an RBI fielder's choice for a total of four runs driven in. The Padres' offense is still meek, but it's a little more competent with a veteran like Ludwick.

4. Despite the mounting Phillies' hot streak -- now nine straight wins and 13 out of 14 as they've built a five-game lead over the Braves -- the lingering concern for the NL East leaders has been their bullpen, particularly the back end of it. Closer Brad Lidge went from invincible (2008) to combustible (2009) in one year, flat.

He began 2010 on the disabled list and was sluggish getting going. On July 31, he blew his fourth save in 14 opportunities and saw his ERA rise to 5.57. Lidge was looking more and more like 2009 self (0-8, 7.21 ERA, 31-for-42 in save chances) than his 2008 self (2-0, 1.95 ERA, 41-for-41 in save chances).

Since the calendar flipped to August, however, Lidge has again been dominant. He closed the door on the Braves for the second straight night on Tuesday, this time preserving a 5-3 victory for Roy Halladay's 20th win, and has allowed just two earned runs in his last 20 2/3 innings (0.87 ERA). Opponents are batting .127 against Lidge, as he has saved 15 of 16 games.

He was especially dominant on Monday night, getting two strikeouts in his one inning and inducing swinging strikes on five of his eight sliders. He followed that up with a yeoman's effort on Tuesday, allowing a leadoff single to Derrek Lee but then retiring the next three batters, including striking out Nate McLouth on a slider at the bottom of the strike zone.

Given how well the starters -- especially the big three of Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt -- are throwing, the Phillies won't need too much more out of their bullpen than a reliable ninth from Lidge.

5. While Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano rightfully deserves to be among the candidates mentioned for AL MVP for his stellar production amidst the subpar and inconsistent seasons from Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the contributions of Nick Swisher cannot be overlooked.

Swisher started the Yankees' scoring on Monday night with a solo home run in the first inning -- his 27th of the year -- and added a single later as New York beat the Rays 8-3 to extend its AL East lead back to 2 1/2 games.

Swisher is now batting .290 with a .362 OBP and .516 slugging percentage; the average and slugging are second on the team, trailing only Cano. Swisher has been steady and versatile, hitting effectively from several spots in the lineup -- primarily second but also fifth, sixth and eighth -- while seeing 4.03 pitches per plate appearance, third on the team and No. 19 in the AL.

The rightfielder has also proven himself immune to home/road splits. In 2009, he was the one Yankee to hit better on the road (21 HRs, .945 OPS) than at home (8 HRs, .776 OPS) while in 2010 he entered Tuesday's game with near identical splits. In 69 games and 66 starts at home, he was hitting .287/.360/.496 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs; in 69 games and 66 starts on the road he is hitting .291/.365/.528 with 13 home runs and 41 RBIs.

And the Rays have yet to figure Swisher out. He has been particularly dangerous against Tampa Bay, batting .354 with a .415 OBP and five home runs in 13 games.

 
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