Despite no trades and an overused bullpen, Twins continue charmed season

More than two weeks before the July 31 trade deadline, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire met with general manager Bill Smith and asked for two things to improve his team for the stretch run.

First: A right-handed, power-hitting third baseman to slot behind Justin Morneau in the batting order – not a near-done veteran like Phil Nevin, but someone legitimate, with pop in his bat. And second, another reliable eighth-inning reliever to ease the workload on Matt Guerrier.

Gardenhire’s first wish had little chance of happening. There weren’t many of those guys available; the biggest-name sluggers moved before and after the deadline were left-handed first basemen, DHs and outfielders. With Joe Mauer, Morneau and Jason Kubel in the middle of the order, the Twins are too left-handed already.

But the second was doable, and necessary, since the Twins have no one at Class AAA Rochester good enough to help them.

Instead, the Twins did nothing. That didn’t surprise anyone in their clubhouse who has been here awhile.

Part of it was Smith’s reluctance to mess with the curious karma that has engulfed this team. Almost every veteran acquired by Smith, who succeeded Terry Ryan last fall, has been a bust, while three in-season call-ups left over from the Ryan regime turned into .300-hitting starters (Alexi Casilla, Brian Buscher and Denard Span). When a team releases its Opening Night starter on Aug. 1 (Livan Hernandez, a Smith signee who pitched effectively early before tailing off), yet keeps bobbing around first place, something charmed is afoot that can’t be explained by statistics.

“We need to be careful not to tinker with something that’s not broken,” Smith said to me in mid-July.

But in another sense, Smith handcuffed himself. He refused to deal Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey or Glen Perkins, his quartet of young starting pitchers and the players most teams coveted. Francisco Liriano, like any pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, held zero trade value until he proved he could get major-league hitters out, so he wasn’t going anywhere either. (Ask any scout: Trying to peddle a pitcher recovering from arm surgery is like trying to sell a burning car.) And the organization lacks a stockpile of near-ready prospects who often fill out deadline deals.

Of course, none of this mattered to the folks in the clubhouse, who saw players moving left and right to every other contender and wondered when Smith would jump in. Privately, the Twins staff grumbled when Smith failed to acquire LaTroy Hawkins from the Yankees, or claim even a marginal veteran on waivers.

Smith conceded that the volume of players on the waiver wire has overwhelmed him. After July 31, teams often put blocks of players on trade waivers, which are revocable, to gauge interest. Players must clear those waivers to be traded after the deadline. Occasionally, a team claims a player to block him from going to a rival. But that gets tricky, because if you block a highly paid player you really don’t want and that team says, “Take ’em,” you’re stuck. That’s how the Yankees ended up with Jose Canseco in 2000.

“The whole waiver process takes a lot of time,” Smith said Wednesday during the Twins’ 4-2 victory over the Yankees. “There’s a lot of names. You’re trying to cover yourself, get your team better, while trying to prevent certain players from going through.”

Meanwhile, the one thing the staff feared most – that Guerrier, the only pitcher Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson trusted to set up Joe Nathan, would be gassed before help arrived – has come to pass. The two homers Guerrier allowed to Alex Rodriguez and Xavier Nady in the three-run 12th inning on Tuesday night were the third and fourth he has allowed in eight appearances since July 31. In that span, opposing batters have hit .485 (16-for-33) while Guerrier’s ERA rose more than a run, to 4.67 from 3.23.

Guerrier tired at a similar point last season, in early August, en route to a career-high 73 appearances. But Wednesday, he gamely insisted his arm felt fine. “It’s just frustrating when you struggle like I have,” Guerrier said. “I make a bad pitch, it gets hit. I make a good pitch, it gets hit. It’s frustrating at this point. I’m just trying to fight through it.”

But Gardenhire sees a worn-out pitcher, and no way to give him a badly needed break. “Do you see one in place?” he said sarcastically. “Do you see a happy vacation spot to send people to? There isn’t one.

“He’s been used a lot. I’d love to be able to say, here’s four or five days. But it’s not that simple. When your starters give you five or six innings, tell me where you find breaks.”

Now, what happened to this deep bullpen that was supposed to be the Twins’ strength? Pat Neshek’s season-ending elbow injury proved much more problematic than expected. Just as some guys can’t handle the pressure of the ninth inning (see: Hawkins), some can’t even deal with the eighth inning.

Jesse Crain, who should have slipped seamlessly into Neshek’s role, falls behind too many batters because he can’t throw strikes with his fastball. With Guerrier unavailable for the eighth inning on Wednesday, Crain did it again, going 3-1 on Alex Rodriguez with the tying runs on. He escaped, luckily, when Rodriguez flied out to center, though Carlos Gomez almost gave Gardenhire a stroke by losing the ball momentarily in the roof before making the catch.

This came after Gardenhire, angry that Wilson Betemit singled off Craig Breslow, bounded out of the dugout and waved in lefty Dennys Reyes before noticing the right-handed Richie Sexson on deck to pinch-hit for switch-hitting Melky Cabrera – a rookie mistake that Gardenhire, incredibly, got away with.

The proper moves should have been Crain to face Sexson, Reyes for Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, and Joe Nathan for A-Rod. Instead, Reyes had to face a slugger who was 5-for-10 career against him, with all five hits for extra bases, one a homer. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, thanks to a hasty manager.

But the charmed team remained charmed for one more inning. Reyes struck out Sexson, who can no longer catch up to a good fastball. And though Reyes later wild-pitched a run home, he and Crain prevented a game-losing big inning.

“He told me after the game, ‘You saved me. Thanks for picking me up,’ ” Reyes said of Gardenhire.

Crain is the best in-house sub for Guerrier, and the Twins have no choice now but to use him and hope for the best. Heck, it took Delmon Young almost five months to start hitting with power. Maybe this will work out, too. In this crazy Twins season, nothing is surprising anymore.

And another thing …
• An attendance update: Against all odds, logic and high gas prices, the Twins drew their 15th consecutive crowd of 30,000-plus on Wednesday afternoon, the club’s longest streak since 15 straight in 1992. The record: 26, in 1988. They’re still running about 1,700 a game behind last year, though.

• Small-ball lovers, take heed: The Twins lead the major leagues with 50 sacrifice flies.

• By a show of hands: Which is more ridiculous, Nick Punto sliding headfirst into first base, or rookie Randy Ruiz going in feet-first and popping upright, as he did Tuesday night? I’m thinking even the anti-Nicky crowd has to concede this one to Ruiz.

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