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Minnesota Twins at midseason: Halfway home but fully buried

John Shipley, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

DETROIT — The Twins hit the midway point of the 2012 season on their best roll of the season, winners of five straight before a 5-1 loss on the Fourth of July.

But playing consistent winning baseball appears unsustainable, and not just because the Twins began the second half with another loss Thursday.

Pitching wins pennants, and the Twins’ best pitching has been of the short variety from a very good bullpen. The starters, 10 of them so far, have been erratic at best, dreadful at worst, giving up almost six runs a game through Wednesday’s 81st game of the 162-game season. So no matter how many homers Minnesota gets out of Wonder Twins Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham, or whether Joe Mauer wins his fourth American League batting title, this team seems destined to finish out of the running in the AL Central.

“It’s not always just one area,” manager Ron Gardenhire said diplomatically. “We’ve obviously had to use way too many starting pitchers, and that has not helped us.”

Sure, the Twins have missed their opportunities with runners in scoring position, and they’ve been shut down by some good pitchers, Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander among them. But every team has those problems. Not every team has had the rotation problems of the Twins, who likely will use their 11th starter of the season Saturday at Texas.

After Wednesday’s loss to Verlander and the Tigers at Comerica Park, the Twins’ rotation ranked either dead last or second to last in earned-run

average (5.90), hits (530), home runs (77), strikeouts (258) and victories (21), and it ranked 27th in innings pitched (4271/3).

When Nick Blackburn was optioned to Class AAA Rochester on Wednesday, he became the fourth member of the expected Opening Day rotation to lose his job at some point because of ineffectiveness. Jason Marquis (released), Francisco Liriano (bullpen) and Liam Hendriks (optioned) all preceded him. This is not to mention Scott Baker, the team’s best starter in 2011 with an 8-6 record and 3.14 ERA, who had season-ending Tommy John surgery without throwing a pitch.

“We’ve not been consistent enough all the way around,” Gardenhire said. “It’s a team sport, a team game. One area can definitely hurt you, but ultimately it’s a team, and our team has not put together enough good streaks — and had too many bad streaks.”

April was a killer. Their first three road trips went through Baltimore, New York and Tampa Bay, the three teams atop what is arguably baseball’s best division, the AL East. Their second home series was against AL West-leading Texas, probably the best team in baseball. When that gantlet was run, the Twins were 5-11 and gasping for air. They won only one more game in April, going 6-16.

“When you get off to a bad start, a lot of times it’s not something you can make up in a month or two — it’s got to be over the long haul, and we’ve done it slowly but surely,” said Willingham, one of several solid offseason acquisitions who is leading the team with 59 runs batted in. “We’ve made up a little ground, but we weren’t anticipating getting off to a start like that.”

Despite playing above .500 since May 16 (25-20), the Twins started Thursday still 11 games under .500 and nine games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox in the Central Division. The lethal blow was a 3-14 stretch from April 21 to May 10. In those 17 games, the Twins got six quality starts, and when the skid was over, the Twins were 8-23, 10 games back.

“We definitely dug ourselves a hole,” said Mauer, who seems to have recovered from an injury-wracked 2011, when he missed 82 games because of injuries ranging from leg weakness to pneumonia. At the midpoint, he was batting .327 with five homers and 38 RBIs after career lows last season of .287 and three homers, as well as just 30 RBIs.

“We knew going into the season we had a rough schedule to start off,” Mauer said, “but I think what made it seem even worse was the way we lost a lot of those games — a lot of one-run games (four), a lot of games we could have easily won instead of lost. Hard-fought games. But we’ve been playing better as of late, and hopefully we can gain some momentum going into the break.”

For planning purposes, that doesn’t seem to matter. The team, of course, has to try to make the playoffs this season, but it’s management’s job to discern whether it’s time to punt. General manager Terry Ryan won’t say whether he’ll be a buyer or seller as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, but the path seems clear.

Despite a horrible start in 2011, Minnesota pulled within five games of first last July with a 15-2 run. But Twins starters went 14-2 with a 1.88 ERA in that stretch, something that seems impossible for this bunch. Common sense says Ryan has little choice but to cash in some assets with the hope of piecing together a workable rotation for 2013.

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