Gardy admits obvious, doubts Morneau will return this season

Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday what most already assumed. He doubts first baseman Justin Morneau – out since suffering a concussion July 7 - will return this season.

I’ve had a bad feeling about Morneau’s condition for some time, simply considering his history as a multiple concussion sufferer. I blogged a couple of weeks after the injury asking people what they thought the Twins’ fortunes would be if Morneau was done for the season, something at the time I had no reason to be sure of, but something I thought was a possibility.

Last year, when Morneau’s back kept him out for the final month of the season, I thought the Twins would get swept by the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. They were too overmatched.

The difference between this year and last year is a productive Delmon Young and a healthy Jim Thome, plus the fact that Danny Valencia is ions better than Matt Tolbert (the Twins’ starting third baseman in the playoffs last year).

Morneau was off to an MVP start to the season. And while the Twins could sure use him in a playoff series, it’s not nearly the devastating blow as it was a year ago. This year’s team sports a far more balanced lineup.

So even without Morneau, I think the Twins are going to be a tough team to deal with in the playoffs.

Unable to set their playoff rotation last year after an incredible come-from-behind run to the division title, the Twins sent an inexperienced Brian Duensing to the mound for Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium, less than 24 hours after winning Game 163 against Detroit at the Metrodome.

This year, that same Duensing has got another year under his belt. He’s a little more experienced, and he’s just the third starter on a team that’s ridden Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano as a solid 1-2 punch in the rotation.

B Team gets it done as Twins catch Yankees

One night after clinching a postseason berth, the Minnesota Twins find themselves tied with the New York Yankees for best record in the American League.

The Yankees dropped a 7-2 decision to Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. During the afternoon, the Twins – featuring a lineup barely recognizable to a bandwagon fan – defeated the Cleveland Indians 5-1.

Twins got some big hits in the sixth inning from guys fighting for spots on the postseason roster. Alexi Casilla, Jose Morales, Matt Tolbert and Ben Revere helped the Twins score five runs between the sixth and seventh innings to give Nick Blackburn enough run support for a victory.

Blackburn appears to have solidified the No. 4 spot in the playoff rotation.

As far as the pursuit for home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, the Twins are tied with the Yankees. Both are 1 1/2 in front of Tampa Bay. The Rays and Yankees wrap up a four-game series Thursday, so a Rays win would put the Twins on top with the best record in the majors.

Looking ahead, the Twins and Rays appear to have easier paths the rest of the season. But there’s always the dreaded “team that’s got nothing to play for” to deal with.

  • Twins remaining schedule: 3 at Detroit, 3 at Kansas City, 4 vs. Toronto
  • Rays remaining schedule (beyond Thursday): 3 vs. Seattle, 3 vs. Baltimore, 4 at Kansas City
  • Yankees remaining schedule (beyond Thursday): 3 vs. Boston, 3 at Toronto, 3 at Boston

With most precincts reporting, I’m calling it: Twins are in

That’s right, folks. Despite the lessons learned from last year’s wild AL Central comeback, I think the Minnesota Twins’ lead is big enough for me to say it’s over and not worry about a jinx. With a 10-game lead over the Chicago White Sox and 14 games left, the Twins’ magic number to clinch the division is just 5. So, it’s over.

Jim Thome

Jim Thome's a man. He's 40. And he needs rest. Associated Press photo

The Twins main objective now is giving their players adequate rest, something they haven’t been able to do in years past, since the Twins are usually come-from-behind second half team. They’re still a second-half team this year, with the best record in baseball after the All-Star break. They just didn’t require the late-season heroics.

So give Francisco Liriano an extra day’s rest here or there. Try to spot Joe Mauer from time to time. And take care of Jim Thome and his all-important 40-year-old back. That’s the priority. And try to get that home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. Considering the Twins’ lead over Texas, they should have it in the first round regardless.

And for my Week 2 NFL picks (I went 3-2 in Week 1). My picks are bold.

  • Green Bay by 12 over Buffalo. Bills
  • Cleveland by 3 over Kansas City. Chiefs
  • Denver by 3 over Seattle. Broncos
  • Baltimore by 1 over Cincinnati. Ravens
  • Indianapolis by 5 1/2 over N.Y. Giants. Colts

Are Twins fans ready to call the division race over?

After the Chicago White Sox have suffered back-to-back 9-3 losses to the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m starting to think this AL Central race might be over.

Ozzie Guillen

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, right, and bench coach Joey Cora, left, watch their team play against the Minnesota Twins during the seventh inning Wednesday in Chicago. Associated Press photo

The only thing stopping me is memories of last season, when the Minnesota Twins rallied from three games down with four games to go. Over and over again, I said on the radio that it was over, that the Detroit Tigers were going to the playoffs. And even after being in person at Game 163 last season, I still wasn’t sure if what I saw was reality.

So, what’s the difference:

  • First off, I blogged on Sept. 17 last year that the Twins were just four games behind the Tigers at that time. So the deficit will be quite a bit larger, even if the White Sox pull out a victory in Thursday’s night series finale.
  • And by that point, the Twins were a hot team, having won four games in a row. This year’s race has the first-place Twins as the hot team again, while the White Sox have struggled, losing six of their last eight games.
  • Last year, the Twins and Tigers had a couple of series left against each other at this time. This year, the Twins and White Sox close out their season series Thursday.

My gut tells me this division race is over. But my mind won’t let me say so yet.

Twins look dangerous when healthy … relatively speaking

When the Minnesota Twins’ “A” lineup – or the players that most represent an “A” lineup since the injury to Justin Morneau – takes the field, they look like a formidable foe.

Francisco Liriano

Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano has made the most of extra rest this season. Associated Press photo

The Twins posted a nine-spot on Tuesday to take the first game of a three-game series from the Chicago White Sox 9-3. The Twins’ lead in the AL Central is now at seven games over Chicago.

Aside from the offense, Francisco Liriano had some ups and downs. He was dominant at times, but he pitched himself into a few jams too. Liriano allowed three runs in six innings of work.

This is where locking up the division comes into play. Liriano really seemed to benefit from extra rest a few weeks ago. Ideally, the Twins could put themselves in a position down the stretch to give Liriano an extra day or two here or there. Does that mean Liriano lacks the toughness or endurance to make it through a full season on regular rest? Think what you want. The important thing is that the Twins have him pitching at his best in October.

And the return of left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes has been a nice addition to the team. He cruised through the eighth inning before giving way to Jon Rauch.

Some of the injured pieces are starting to come back. But it’s important now for the Twins to finish off the Sox, then start to give an extra day off here or there to some of their key players. Morneau is out, and the Twins can ill afford to lose anyone else.

Manny in the Windy City

Manny Ramirez is expected to make his Chicago White Sox debut tonight in one of his former home stadiums, as the Sox face the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field.

The White Sox acquired the oft-injured outfielder from the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday on a simple waiver claim, meaning the Sox are responsible for the final $4 million owed to the slugger.

Ramirez still has some pop in that bat. The problem with ManRam is that he can’t stay on the field. He’s had three different stints on the disabled list this season, two because of strains of his right calf and the other for a pulled hamstring.

The 38-year-old Ramirez, who is hitting .311 with eight homers and 40 RBIs in 66 games this season, will be able to somewhat protect his legs since he will primarily be serving as the team’s designated hitter.

However, Manny’s injuries have cropped up after he’s been running the bases. Not much the Sox can do to protect him in that regard.

Chicago is four games behind Minnesota in the AL Central. If Ramirez can stay healthy for the remaining month of the season, he should have a big impact on the race. He’s a definitive upgrade over the platoon of Mark Kotsay and Andruw Jones. Can’t argue with that.

Ramirez’s addition makes an already interesting clubhouse that much more compelling. Hopefully, they put his locker next to catcher A.J. Pierzynski’s, somewhere near the office of manager Ozzie Guillen.

This should make for an entertaining five weeks.

Twins win this round, but war is not over

The Minnesota Twins moved into the driver’s seat in the AL Central race on Thursday night, defeating the Chicago White Sox 6-1. The Twins took 2 of 3 in the series, giving them a one-game lead in the division over the ChiSox.

Encouraging to see the Twins offense take advantage of a few opportunities. Francisco Liriano pitched in and out of a few jams in the fifth and sixth innings, with a little help from reliever Matt Guerrier.

It is only mid-August, but you can’t discount victories like this one. The Twins were considered favorites by many to win the AL Central before the season. And for whatever reason – blame Joe Nathan‘s injury, blame Justin Morneau‘s concussion, blame whatever – Minnesota just hasn’t been able to pull away. Do they lack a killer instinct, or were they just not as good as we all thought? Whatever the case, the Twins would rather be a game up than a game back, and that’s where they find themselves.

Now, the Twins head back to Target Field for a three-game set against the Oakland Athletics. The A’s, if you remember, jump-started the Twins last year.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009, the Twins were a couple games below .500 and wrapping up a home series against Oakland at the Metrodome. This was the first game of Morneau’s season-ending departure from the team due to injury. This was also the last game – as of now – of Joe Crede‘s big league career.

But the Twins pummeled the A’s thanks to the pitching of Brian Duensing, and from then on Minnesota rolled, rallying to win the AL Central after taking a one-game playoff against the Detroit Tigers.

The A’s this year are hanging around the AL West, but all can agree that division belongs to Texas barring an epic collapse.

Poz provides his predictions

To whet your baseball appetities, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski has predictions for each team and makes division breakdowns on his blog.

Catchers and pitchers report for some teams tomorrow.

I’m going to wait on making any predictions until the regular season is upon us. But I will say I still think the AL Central will be a two-team race between the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox.

I see Posnanski has the Twins winning the Central by seven games. But I don’t think it’s going to be that easy, and people shouldn’t dismiss the White Sox too quickly.

Is Andruw Jones their starting DH? Yes. Is that absurd? Of course.

But that rotation still has a bona fide ace in Jake Peavy. Then there’s Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks, all of whom had ERAs of 4.06 or less last season.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Twins are the favorites. But if they win the division by seven games, then a lot of things went right.

Anyway, it’s a good read. Check it out above.

Doubleheader thoughts

Here’s my take on the Minnesota Twins’ splitting a doubleheader Tuesday against the Detroit Tigers, leaving the Twins still two games back in the AL Central race:

  • Nick Blackburn did a nice job in Game 1, ducking trouble in the early innings before settling into a nice groove. This was a big game for him, probably the second-biggest start of his young career, ranking right after the one-game playoff start he got against the Chicago White Sox last year. On both occassions, he held the opponent in check.
  • The Nick Punto suicide squeeze in the ninth inning of Game 1 is inexcusable. I hated the play. And of course, if it works, it’s applauded. But with a runner on third and one out in a tie game in the ninth inning, if you can’t find a way to drive that run in there’s something wrong with you. Punto did what he could; I certainly don’t blame him.
  • Jon Rauch did a nice job of pitching around the leadoff walk in the ninth, giving the Twins a chance to win the game in the 10th inning. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I like the way this bullpen is going to shape up for 2010. The Twins got Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Rauch. Not a bad four to start with.
  • Expected a better outing from Brian Duensing in Game 2 after he shut the Tigers down just a week or two ago. He’s done a nice job this season as a starter, but he’s starting to show some chinks in his armor.
  • Nice to see the Twins battle back against Justin Verlander, who thoroughly dominated them through the first five innings. Watching him make Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez look silly on high fastball after high fastball continues to leave me wondering how the Twins could have gotten so little for Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.
  • I really didn’t understand Guerrier facing Curtis Granderson to open the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 2 with Mijares still available, and I did say as much before he homered. Yeah, Mijares pitched in Game 1, but just to a couple of batters. Guerrier has been one of the best middle relievers in baseball this season, but Granderson is hitting under .200 against lefties this year, and he’s a full 100 points better against righties. It seemed like a no-brainer spot to put Mijares in. Unfortuately, Granderson’s homer put the Tigers up by 2, and with the Twins managing just a run in the ninth, the Guerrier decision proved costly.

One other Twins story that caught my eye was the Twins reportedly agreeing to terms with free-agent Dominican teenage shortstop Miguel Angel Sano to a rich signing bonus.

"I’m very thankful to get this chance to sign with the Twins," Sano told the Associated Press. "I’m going to work very hard to try to get to the majors in two years."

There’s much being done to confirm Sano’s age. He claims to be 16 years old, but according to the story is much more physically developed than the typical 16-year-old.

The story does mention if the Twins do get this guy and he is 16 or near that, he will easily be the biggest prospect the Twins have ever had from Latin America.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I was concerned that the Twins seemingly don’t develop any prospects through the minor leagues from outside the draft, other than those they trade for. It’s nice to see them make a commitment to someone that wasn’t acquired through the draft. Sounds like he has first-round talent, so why not pay him first-round money?