Commentary

What's ailing Minnesota?

Last-place Twins face stiff test to get back into contention

Updated: May 21, 2011, 5:31 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

This is the way the season has gone for the Twins. Before heading to the ballpark Friday to begin a three-game series in Arizona, the team boarded a bus, rode to a Phoenix area church and attended a funeral. Manager Ron Gardenhire, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan served as pallbearers for the great Harmon Killebrew, along with former Twins Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Paul Molitor and Frank Quilici.

How many teams attend funerals for one of their most beloved players before a game? Trust me, there was crying in baseball Friday. "It's almost like he knew we would be able to take part in his ceremony," Cuddyer told reporters of the timing of Killebrew's death and the Twins' rare series in Phoenix.

Later that evening, the Twins blew two leads, fell short with a ninth-inning rally and lost 8-7 to the Diamondbacks, dropping to 12½ games out of first place in the AL Central with the worst record in baseball and still no set date for Joe Mauer's return.

How bad has it been this season? I prefaced a question to Gardenhire on Monday by saying, "All the things you've gone through over the years, how does this …" but Gardenhire cut me off abruptly.

Justin Morneau
Hannah Foslien/Gettt ImagesJustin Morneau and the Twins have scored a major league-worst 145 runs.

"I haven't had anything to compare this with, to tell you the truth. There's been nothing to compare this to," he said. "This is something else. From the injuries -- losing four of your starters all at one time, your whole bullpen gone from last year that you counted heavily on. I haven't had that before.

"In spring training we were trying to piece it together. A lot of things had to fall into place with Nathan and the end of the bullpen. We thought we would be OK if Nathan was OK. That didn't work out right away, so it's been a little bit of something I haven't seen before. The offense, the middle of the infield -- all the things we've always prided ourselves in and been really strong at have not happened. Yet."

Minnesota reached the playoffs for the sixth time in nine seasons under Gardenhire last fall, but a return will be challenging. They are 15-28 and have scored the fewest runs in the majors. Toronto's Jose Bautista has almost as many home runs at Target Field this year (five) as all the Twins combined (six).

That would be bad enough, but it's considerably more concerning because Mauer has spent most of the year weak and aching or on the disabled list, while Morneau struggles to recover the form he showed before last July's concussion ended the 2010 season for him. Morneau is swinging the bat better recently but is bothered by weakness in his shoulder and still has just two home runs and 13 RBIs.

Mauer hasn't played since April 12 due to what has been described as bilateral leg weakness, which is not exactly the sort of diagnosis you want to hear about a catcher two months into an eight-year, $184 million contract. He is working out at extended spring training with no announced timetable for his return.

Combined, Mauer and Morneau are hitting .242 with two home runs and 17 RBIs -- and perhaps more importantly, are owed more than $200 million in future salary. Minnesota may no longer be baseball's darling little blue-collar team, but that's a daunting figure when the future isn't exactly certain for either player.

Somewhere, Carl Pohlad is either rolling in his grave or raising cash by foreclosing on farmers in the afterlife.

"It's been frustrating for everyone, but no more frustrating than it's been for Joe Mauer," Minnesota general manager Bill Smith said. "But I think he's over the hump. He's down there at Fort Myers at extended spring training, and he's going out and hitting and getting himself ready to play soon. He's making good progress."

Mauer and Morneau aren't the only players who are either hurt or struggling. Japanese second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka is on the disabled list with the leg he broke just before the home opener, and designated hitter Jim Thome (strained oblique) is at extended spring training with Mauer. Outfielder Delmon Young is hitting .217 with no home runs and has struck out 10 times in 26 at-bats since returning from the disabled list (strained oblique). Opening Day starter Carl Pavano is 2-4 with a 5.30 ERA. Nathan has a 7.07 ERA and lost the closing job. And the healthy players simply aren't playing very well.

Michael Cuddyer It's definitely not the way we were brought up to play. Wins and losses aside, we're not playing Twins baseball.

-- Twins RF/1B Michael Cuddyer

"There's been a lot on our table," Gardenhire said. "It's been rough. It's frustrating, plus the injuries. Morneau is still trying to play through injuries. Thome is down. These are all the guys in the clubhouse you need here. It's not an easy process. I would say I've seen this before, but I haven't. This is a new experience for myself and my coaching staff and we're trying to fight our way through it. Our job is to be as positive as we can and do all the work and not slack off on that, and see if we can get things back on track."

The Twins had won three straight games before the loss to Arizona on Friday night, but prior to that they lost nine straight -- their longest losing streak since 1998, when Tom Kelly was manager. Gardenhire said he was happy with the way some veteran players lashed out at younger players after a lifeless loss to Seattle on Monday extended the streak to nine.

"It's not a bad thing to be a little emotional," Gardenhire said that night. "Sometimes you sit back and take it. We don't have to take it. I don't like guys to take it. Some of the veterans need to step up and let it be known to some of the young guys, 'This is a bunch of bulls---.' And a couple of them did, which is good. I'm happy with that."

Perhaps inspired by the tongue-lashing or by the No. 3 patches they wore the next day to honor Killebrew following his death, the Twins beat Felix Hernandez to snap the losing streak and then swept a two-game series in Oakland.

The Twins may be way back in the standings, but Smith insists this is no time to panic, that there is still time to come back. They've been in this position before, he says, pointing to 2006 when they were 12½ out in late May but rallied to win the division and to 2009 when they overcame a seven-game deficit in September (without Morneau).

"This has been tough on the coaches, tough on management, tough on the players and tough on the fans," Smith said. "We dug ourselves into a big hole and we have to find our way out."

Smith said there are a lot of clichés he could use to describe the situation before choosing the most reliable: "We just have to take it one win at a time. Win today and then win the next game."

Twins pitching legend Bert Blyleven gave a eulogy Friday, and said he talked with Killebrew on Monday before the Twins (with their eight-game losing streak) played the Mariners. "Harmon was in a lot of pain and I could hear that over the phone," Blyleven said. "You know what Harmon was concerned about? The Twins were 0-8. He said, 'Bert, tell the guys to start winning some games.'"

Killebrew wasn't the only one looking for that to happen.

"It's tough," Cuddyer said of Killebrew's loss coupled with the team's many losses. "Both of them on their own are extremely difficult to fathom, to understand, get your head around. You understand that nobody lives forever -- that's obvious -- but if there ever was a guy, you think it would be Harmon. And obviously the way we're playing compounds your heavy heart."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com