Late last Tuesday night, Paul Konerko hit a routine ground ball to second base in Oakland, and the Twins - watching in their Target Field clubhouse - clinched the 2010 AL Central title. Wednesday, they sent out a lineup that more or less resembled Triple-A Rochester's everyday lineup, and got some middle-innings clutch hits to beat the Indians 5-1.
Thursday was an off day, and so many Twins fans spent the day arguing: should the Twins rest up for the playoffs, or continue to play their everyday lineup, in the hopes of clinching home-field advantage throughout the AL portion of the postseason.
And then Friday, the losing began. Three straight in Detroit. Two more in Kansas City. Three times, the Twins managed a solitary run and got blown out; twice more, they scored a bunch but pitched like beer-league softballers, losing slugfests 11-10 and 10-8. Twins pitchers gave up 46 runs in five games. And the narrative around the team gradually shifted from "Should they keep being so awesome, or save it for later?" to "Oh no, they're terrible again!"
The Twins won Wednesday to end the skid and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Royals, which doesn't erase that five-game black mark on their record Even so, I think it'll be fine - and here are five reasons why.
1. The bullpen - at least the six guys who'll man the 'pen in the postseason - pitched well.
Jose Mijares made three appearances without giving up a run. Jon Rauch made two without a run, as did Matt Guerrier. Brian Fuentes threw two innings in his only appearance, with no runs allowed. Jesse Crain blew a save in Detroit, a role he won't play in the postseason, and gave up one run in two innings. And closer Matt Capps, who finally pitched in the fifth game of the skid just for the work, struck out the side.
All told, those six members of the Twins bullpen combined to throw 10.1 innings during the five-game slump, allowing one run on six hits and striking out 10. As if to prove this point, during the Twins' win Wednesday in Kansas City, Guerrier, Fuentes and Capps combined to throw four shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a walk.
Over those six games, those six pitchers combined for an 0.67 ERA and a .157 batting average against. This is quite nice, it has to be said.
2. If you judge the starters based on the last week, it's trouble. If you expand your frame larger, things look better in a hurry.
Staff ace Francisco Liriano has a 2.86 ERA in the second half of the season. Since moving into the rotation on July 23, Brian Duensing has a 2.83 ERA. Since returning from the minors in late August, Nick Blackburn has a 3.24 ERA. You could say that I cherry-picked those statistics... or you could say that three of the Twins' four likely postseason starters have been "throwing the living fire out of the ball," to quote Ron Gardenhire in every one of his press conferences ever.
If you want to worry, worry about Carl Pavano, who's had two consecutive bad starts. Then again, his two starts prior to those two, he threw eight innings in each, and gave up three runs in one and two in the other - performances the Twins will take anytime in the playoffs.
3. The prognosis looks good for the three Twins currently missing from the lineup.
Jim Thome, JJ Hardy, and Joe Mauer all missed much of the team's road trip with various ailments. Thome had a knot in his back, Hardy had a slightly swollen knee with no structural damage, and Mauer was dealing with knee inflammation of his own. All three are now working out. All three will be fine by the time the playoffs start.
4. Even with those three missing, the offense wasn't that bad during the skid.
That's 33% of the team's usual production out of the lineup, and even so, the Twins put up ten in one game and eight in another, and got shut down by Justin Verlander in a third, which is no real crime.
5. It's not like any of the other playoff teams have been burning up the basepaths.
The Rangers just dropped two of three to the hapless Mariners, giving up fifteen runs in the series to the hopeless Seattle offense. The Yankees put together a five-game losing streak of their own. And the Rays just got shut out twice by the Orioles in a three-game series. With the Twins' win on Wednesday, despite that five-game skid, they're still just a game back of Tampa and a half-game back of New York, and they'll definitely finish ahead of Texas.
Five losses to Detroit and Kansas City in a row are not heartening, that's for sure. That said, this is no time to panic. It was a bad week for the starting rotation, but if you look at their records over a longer term, they look pretty good. The bullpen, at least as judged from the six guys who'll be in it come playoff time, has been lights-out. The team is getting healthier. The hitting hasn't been bad. And everybody else has been terrible, too.
So don't panic! Playoff baseball starts one week from tonight.