Twins at the Far Turn

Like water seeking its own level, the Twins gurgle inexorably toward a .500 finish with three weeks remaining in the 2009 season. It is not, however, the frequency with which they have followed a big win with a deflating loss that has been most frustrating. Rather, it has been the listlessness of their play, their lack of fight. If the opposing team puts together a big inning, regardless of when it occurs, it is game over.
The defining loss of the stretch run came when the Twins were one strike away from sweeping the White Sox. Joe Nathan gave up two home runs in a row, then two walks, and the Sox suddenly had a 4-2 lead. Instead of charging back, the Twins went down meekly, 1-2-3, in the bottom of the ninth. Last week the Twins held an early 3-0 lead over the Blue Jays. Out of the blue, the Jays scored six runs in the 5th. Although the Twins would have four more at-bats, you knew the game was over. And it was.
Three years ago when the “Piranhas” were biting, every game, win or lose, was exciting. The Twins scrapped. The team played “small ball,” and somehow it seemed there were always a couple runners on base. Come-from-behind wins were common. I don’t have actual statistics, but I’ll bet that the Twins’ percentage of come-from-behind wins this year is near or at league bottom.
The malaise seems general, so it is perhaps unfair to single any player out; but any discussion of the Twins starts with Justin Morneau. I have long said that the Twins will go only as far as Morneau takes them. When he is hot, they are hard to beat. When he slumps, they falter. And when he slumps, there is a depression that must infect others around him. He invariably swings at the first pitch, either thinking it the best he will see or fearing to fall behind in the count. Once he falls behind, the pitcher can toy with him: a breaking ball outside or a high fast ball will produce a strikeout or a weak fly ball.
Other than Denard Span, the other Twins are also prone to popping up on the first pitch they see, resulting in innings as short as they are futile. Joe Mauer, of course, is the exception. His ability to hit, however, is so metronomic that it becomes taken for granted. His composure helps him play the game at a very high level, but it also seemingly fails to inspire his teammates.
What to do? Although the Twins are about sticking-with-what-we’ve-got, I can’t help think that a significant shakeup is in order for next year. New manager? New hitting coach? New left side of the infield and outfield? The relief pitching was the Achilles’ heel the first half of the season, but now, if they keep Liriano in the bullpen, it could be a strength, especially if Pat Neshek can come back. Nathan, Mijares, Guerrier, Liriano, Rauch provide a solid core, with Crain, Neshek, Bonser, Keppel fighting any Minor Leaguers for the last two spots. After this year, you have to wonder about the starters, but Baker, Pavano and Slowey seem solid, especially if they only have to pitch six innings. That means finding two more from Blackburn, Perkins, Duensing and any newcomers.
So, the question remains, how to inject some spark into a bunch of regulars for whom giving up easily may have become habit-forming?