AL Central Report: Signs Of Life In Minnesota

The Detroit Tigers are still struggling. The Cleveland Indians are feeling good about themselves, with a 3 ½ game lead in the AL Central coming into Wednesday’s games. But in a division where no team is really playing well, it’s important to keep everyone on the radar. And that’s why, for as inept as the Minnesota Twins have looked for the first month and a half, the offensive burst they’ve enjoyed the last several games deserves a second look.

It was the usual suspects who delivered the Twins’ offense to the second-most runs in the American League over the past week. Joe Mauer went 10-for-24 and while he didn’t go deep, he hit four doubles. Josh Willingham went 7-for-23. Justin Morneau, back from the disabled list had a .591 slugging percentage. And Denard Span continued to get on base, setting the table at a .381 clip. Not only is the success noteworthy, but so is the reality that this is sustainable success. There’s no reason to think all four players can’t go on to have good years. Then let’s add in that Ben Revere stepped it up with a 5-for-19 week made all the more productive by the fact three of his five hits went for extra bases and he drew a couple walks.

After hitting a 9-22 low point on May 9, the Twins turned it around to split a four-game set with a good Toronto team who would make the playoffs if the season ended today. They split a total of four more with the Indians and Tigers in their own division and then won a weekend series against Milwaukee, three games that may prove to be two ships passing in the night. Then the Twins opened a three-game series on the South Side of Chicago last night by blasting the second-place White Sox 9-2. Clearly, these are not the Twins of April.

If they’re not the Twins of April, are they back to being the Twins of 2002-10, who set the standard for baseball with their fundamental play and overachieving? That depends on the pitching, which was still last in the league during this positive stretch. Clearly, the ERA has to improve or the losses will return. But I like what the organization has done in bringing up younger pitchers and whether this spark can turn into a summer run depends on arms like Scott Diamond and P.J. Walter, the latter who threw a complete game last night and has good outings against Toronto and Detroit to his credit.

There’s a big middle ground between the Twins of April the Twins of 2002-10 and my guess is that for the rest of the season the team will settle somewhere in there, with the pitching of Diamond and Walter being a big determining factor. But in the meantime, it’s good to see Mauer and Morneau hitting again and professional baseball having returned to the Twin Cities.

Minnesota is 15-27, still bringing up the rear in the AL Central. Here’s the rest of the division, ascending upward…

Kansas City (17-25): I keep saying the Royals are a team to watch, as they’ve stabilized themselves since their 10-game losing streak dropped them to 3-14 on April 24. And I’m going to keep saying it until either they get hot, have another losing streak or see a clear frontrunner run off and hide in this division. Kansas City’s getting some good swings from Jeff Francoeur of late, with a .633 slugging percentage over the last week and Alcides Escobar went 10-for-28, enough to compensate for a little down tick from Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. Now someone just has to get Eric Hosmer going at first base, as the highly touted prospect is having an absolutely disastrous start to his season.

Detroit (20-22): You heard on the sports media that Justin Verlander came within two outs of a no-hitter in Pittsburgh and then Max Scherzer struck out 15 of 21 batters against the same Pirate lineup. Great performances to be sure, but the rest of the Tiger staff is having problems. Detroit started a 10-game road stretch last night with a 5-3 loss at frontrunning Cleveland. The trip takes them to Minnesota and then to Boston, with both fifth-place teams playing better than their records and then the return to Motown finds the Yankees and Indians waiting.

ChiSox (21-22): A weekend sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley gave the White Sox some bragging rights and in the AL Central three straight wins is a major hot streak, so they move up into second place. Gordon Beckham and Dayan Vicedio had power surges, hitting three home runs apiece in the last week, while John Danks and Jake Peavy were each razor-sharp in their last starts. Even more heartening was that Philip Humber pitched well, showing he might finally be over his perfect game hangover (I guess if you’re going to have a hangover, that’s as good a reason as any). But Gavin Floyd was blasted last night by the Twins and a weekend series with Cleveland awaits. Life’s tougher when the opponent isn’t the Cubs.

Cleveland (24-18): The Tribe lost a weekend series to Miami, meaning the baseball team missed a chance to avenge the city for LeBron James, but the quality of pitching the Indians are getting is improving rapidly. Ubaldo Jiminez finally pitched well in a big game when he beat Detroit last night, while Justin Masterson and Jeanmar Gomez also had solid starts. But the bullpen showed flashes of 2011 form, with Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano combining for 6.1 innings of shutout ball and Chris Perez nailing both his save opps and then calling out the fans and telling them to get to the ballpark more often. I’m sympathetic with Perez, but he should be aware that the demands of ticket prices make a millionaire ballplayer look a little out of touch in telling middle-class people to spend more money. Safe to say Perez’s political career just got snuffed out.