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Twins’ second-half fate may rest on these five factors

By a show of hands, how many of you are shocked, or at least pleasantly surprised, to find the Minnesota Twins 1-1/2 games out of first in the American League Central going into the second half of the season?

Yep, thought so. Now how many of you still can’t believe Detroit and Cleveland, the off-season favorites to dominate the division, have been so putrid? Yeah, my hand’s up, too.

But this is where the race is at. Cleveland, by trading C.C. Sabathia, set some sort of record for the earliest surrender by a pre-season contender. Unless Detroit surges, it looks like the Twins battling the Chicago Ozzies the rest of the summer for the division, or with the Eastern Bloc nations (Yankees, Red Sox, Rays) and Oakland for the wild card.

From this seat, five things will determine how interesting the Twins can make this:     

STARTING ROTATION:
Of the kids in the rotation – Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins – only Slowey has pitched 200 innings in a season; he threw 200-1/3 last year between Class AAA Rochester and the Twins. Throw in the stress of a major-league pennant race, a first for all but Baker, and there’s a big risk for tired arms –a situation pitching coach Rick Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire must monitor closely.

Arm care is why Gardenhire and Anderson often pull pitchers one inning or 10 to 12 pitches early as a matter of course, especially on hot days on the road. That philosophy drove Johan Santana crazy, since Santana considered it an insult to his manhood. The thinking: Those 10 pitches saved in June are the 10 you’ll need in September, facing Jim Thome with a game on the line.

Anderson’s underappreciated work with these kids allowed Francisco Liriano to gradually come around at Class AAA Rochester after that spectacular flameout with the Twins in April. Liriano appears ready to step in if any of these guys falter or get hurt.

THE EIGHTH INNING: Last year, Gardenhire wore out setup men Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier from overuse. With Neshek finished for the year with a bad elbow, Guerrier can’t do it alone, and Gardenhire still hasn’t found another reliever he trusts in the role. This is the one hole the Twins probably will plug from the outside via a trade or waiver claim.

But before the Twins trade somebody they value, they’ll run through options in the organization. That’s why Gardenhire called on Brian Bass, the garbage-time reliever before Boof Bonser inherited the role, three times last week for eighth-inning duty. One could argue Bass hadn’t done enough to deserve the chance, and Gardenhire caught heat when Bass, entering a scoreless game July 7 at Fenway Park, gave up two hits and run in the eighth to lose, 1-0.  Saturday in Detroit, Bass got an out to keep the tying run at third. But Sunday, with the Twins down a run, Bass served a Matt Joyce homer that secured a 4-2 Tigers victory. One success out of three doesn’t cut it.

With apologies to the Bobby Korecky and Carmen Cali Fan Clubs, there isn’t much help available at Rochester, though Phil Humber’s move to the bullpen suggests another possibility. No matter how this plays out, Gardenhire and Anderson should consider using Joe Nathan for four- or five-out saves when warranted. He’s durable and steely enough to handle the work. If Mariano Rivera can do it, so can Nathan.

THIRD BASE: Neither Brian Buscher nor Mike Lamb can hit left-handers, and neither is a great third baseman. No wonder the Twins asked Seattle about Adrian Beltre, though the Mariners probably will have to cough up half of Beltre’s $12 million salary next year for any deal to happen.

With injured infielders Adam Everett and Matt Tolbert expected back in the next few weeks, and Matt Macri waiting in Rochester for another shot, the Twins have a numbers problem that can’t be easily resolved. Lamb rarely plays anymore, but he’s owed $3 million next year. The Twins stalled before cutting Juan Rincon and his $2.5 million, one-year salary, so don’t expect them to release Lamb outright.

Unless the Twins can find a taker for Lamb, any in-season move to upgrade with a right-handed bat will be a surprise.    

TOP OF THE ORDER:
In limited exposure, Alexi Casilla and Denard Span both look to be better leadoff hitters than Carlos Gomez, who reverted to pulling everything and entered the All-Star break in his worst slump of the season.

None of the hits in Gomez’s 3-for-40 slide have left the infield; one was a bunt, and the other two grounders he beat out. Gomez’s .253 average is the lowest it’s been since late April, and his .287 on-base percentage the worst since early May. And Gomez, who led the American League in stolen bases early on, has one steal in two attempts since June 25.

Casilla isn’t walking much either (three since June 25). But beginning June 20, Casilla has hit in 19 of 20 games, batted .349 and scored 11 runs – essentially filling the leadoff role from the No. 2 spot. And Span, mainly batting ninth since his recall, has hit .375 with a .500 on-base percentage.

The Twins remain committed to letting Gomez play through his mistakes and learn on the job. For now, Gardenhire is reluctant to drop Gomez in the order and risk breaking his confidence. (Hmm, so Gomez’s bravado is an act? Interesting.) But if Gomez keeps struggling, look for a change.

THE SCHEDULE:
We warned you about this before. The Twins play 36 of their final 67 games on the road, including a 14-game jaunt through Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland and Toronto from Aug. 21 to Sept. 4, thanks in part to the Republican Convention in St. Paul. In one stretch, they play 24 of 30 away from the Metrodome. The Twins have been much better at home (32-18) than on the road (21-24).

But it’s worth noting that all seven remaining games with the Central Division-leading White Sox will be here, with a three-game set the last week of the season. Minnesota’s task: Make that series meaningful.

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