Mind over Batter
A group therapy session of sorts puts the Twins' staff on the road to recovery and the team in the AL Central race
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� 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� 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 zone]."
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� 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 mound lately.
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."