It's been one big struggle for Twins

7/23/2003 - Minnesota Twins

Pleasant surprises were many in baseball's first half: Melvin Mora, the Kansas City Royals, Rocco Baldelli are just three.

But when it comes to identifying the single biggest disappointment, there's little competition. The Minnesota Twins, tied for second place in the American League Central through 94 games, are the runaway winners for that dubious distinction.

"I can't believe what's happened to the Twins,'' said one executive with a major-league team, surveying the landscape at the break.

He's not alone. The Twins, winners of 94 games a year ago, are four games under .500 and very much in danger of losing a division title many believed they would again win handily.

No one is as disappointed as Twins general manager Terry Ryan.

"We've had a lot of things not suit our desires,'' Ryan said diplomatically. "When we pitched, we didn't hit. And when we hit, we didn't pitch. We haven't done too many things the way we expected.''

After returning to the playoffs last October for the first time since 1991, the Twins seemed positioned to improve, not backslide. Their core -- minus DH David Ortiz -- returned intact. They had a combination of youth -- not a single position player was 30 -- and experience, having been exposed to the rigors of the postseason last year.

In winning the AL Central and edging the Oakland A's in the Division Series before losing to the Angels in the ALCS, the Twins didn't have a single player -- outside of Torii Hunter -- who enjoyed a career year. To the contrary, third baseman Corey Koskie, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and catcher A.J. Pierzynski all suffered dropoffs from the previous year.

The Twins, it seemed, could only get better.

At the break, I could not figure out which was more surprising -- the Royals being in first place, seven games up, or the Twins being 7½ games out? I actually have come to believe that the Royals can and will win the division because of their offensive ability and because of manager Tony Pena.

Kansas City. I had to be convinced because everyone has been waiting for the Royals to falter. And everyone's still waiting. But they keep playing good baseball, and 7½ games is a significant lead.

Now, I think the Twins will make a run. Getting healthier and trading for Shannon Stewart will help them, but the Twins need to play great baseball to catch the Royals. Maybe Kansas City's inexperience will show in the second half. But the Royals already weathered a rough stretch this season -- basically, the month of May -- and they bounced back.

The Royals have some good young arms amd other talented young players mixed with veterans. At this point, Tony Pena has to be given plenty of consideration for AL manager of the year.

Here's how I expect the three contenders to finish in the AL Central:
1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Royals

The Twins were the favorites heading into the regular season, with a great starting rotation and a tremendous bullpen. But it looks like they have lacked some firepower. The White Sox had firepower, but I questioned their pitching and defense. Nobody I know thought the Royals had a chance. Tip your hat to new manager Tony Pena. He's brought energy and excitement to Kansas City, and the Royals haven't faded as many thought they would.

But I still think the Twins are the team to beat. I expect their pitching and defense to prevail. The Twins' experience in recent pennant races and in the postseason will also be a plus. For the White Sox, the addition of Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett will help, but it won't be enough. They don't have enough pitching to win the division.

"With the experience we gained and another year of maturity,'' Ryan said, "everybody anticipated that would allow us to get that much better. As far as our everyday nine, we felt we would get better. We had a year under our belts, we learned and we had the confidence.''

Certainly the division offered little in the way of competition. The Chicago White Sox, deemed their biggest threat, began the season abysmally.

But beginning in June, the Twins began to falter, starting a free-fall that was interrupted only by the All-Star break. Incredibly, the Twins lost their last eight, 12 of their last 13 and 18 of the last 24 heading into the break, landing in the middle of what is arguably the weakest division in either league.

At the start of the season, the Twins were judged to have, along with Seattle and Anaheim, one of the AL's top three bullpens. And their defense was unmatched.

Nothing, however, has gone as expected.

"It's been a composite,'' said Ryan, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "There were weeks there when our rotation didn't get us deep into games. There were times when we haven't hit with runners in scoring position. There have been days when we haven't run the bases well. There have been others when we haven't fielded well.

"If you could put your finger on one specific area, you'd go fix it. But you can't.''

Ryan thought he'd survived his biggest crisis in the spring when lefty starter Eric Milton was lost for the year with a knee injury and was replaced by free agent Kenny Rogers. Rogers has pitched fairly well (7-5, 4.89), but the same can't be said of fellow veterans Brad Radke (5-9, 5.49), Joe Mays (8-6, 6.50) or Rick Reed (4-9, 5.03).

"When we left spring training,'' said Ryan, "the strength of the team was pitching and defense. But neither of those areas have been up to par.''

Worse, strong fundamental play -- the hallmark of the Twins since the Tom Kelly era -- hasn't always been evident this year. Missed cutoffs, baserunning lapses and mental errors have been far too common. Last week, manager Ron Gardenhire felt compelled to bench shortstop Cristian Guzman for not hustling.

(Ryan is confident that was an isolated incident and not symptomatic of a bigger problem. "If people don't think you're playing the right way to help the team, there have to be consequences,'' Ryan said. "I'm fairly certain it won't happen again.'')

Perhaps expectations have changed. A year ago, fresh from surviving the contraction scare, the Twins were plucky underdogs, succeeding in spite of baseball's plan to eliminate them. Now, the Twins can't rally behind the "Let's-show-them'' banner.

"We've been the hunted this year,'' Ryan said. "That can be a little different.''

Ninth in runs scored in the American League in the first half, Ryan traded for outfielder/DH Shannon Stewart on Wednesday.

"We needed to make a move,'' said Ryan. "We're having trouble scoring runs, and this will allow Jacque Jones (coming off the disabled list from a pull groin) to move down lower in the order. We're hoping (Stewart) will give us a boost. He's not a slap hitter; he can drive the ball into the gap. I'm not saying he'll be the end-all, but hopefully, he'll be of some help.''

Ryan dismissed the suggestion that what the Twins really need is a run producer, an honest-to-goodness, middle-of-the-order threat.

"History shows you don't necessarily have to have one of those guys,'' he said. "We didn't have one last year.''

The Twins' budget limits what can be done -- Ryan got the Blue Jays to assume most of Stewart's remaining salary -- but the GM is not ruling out additional deals.

"We'll assess that on a daily basis,'' he said. "We need to keep closing the gap.''

The Twins get no scheduling favors as the second-half begins, drawing Oakland, Seattle and AL Central-leader Kansas City as their first three opponents. If there's an upside, it's this: 14 of their next 17 games are at the Metrodome, where the Twins should enjoy a clear-cut home-field advantage.

But enough time has passed. Will the real Minnesota Twins please stand up?

"We know who we are,'' Ryan asserted. "We've got a core who came up together. We're either gonna succeed or fail together. Thankfully, we're still within shouting distance. We feel we're still in it, we still have a chance. We still have 70 games or so to go. But we have to start now. We can't wait any longer.''

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.