Season heartbreak or postseason? Weekend Twins series will tell a lot

Whether you believe the Twins can overtake Detroit for the AL Central title, or consider their four-game winning streak a prelude to the inevitable heartbreak, this weekend’s critical series with the Tigers at the Metrodome at least gives the Twins what they have been hoping for — a chance at postseason, albeit one they probably don’t deserve.

“You set out in spring training to have a meaningful September,” said right fielder-turned-first baseman Michael Cuddyer. “You hope to have a meaningful October as well. But you hope to have a meaningful September, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Of course, it’s meaningful only because the 74-72 Twins play in baseball’s worst division. That the Twins stand only four games behind the first-place Tigers with 16 to play despite well-documented pitching problems, the middle-infield fiasco and key injuries says more about AL Central mediocrity than anything else.

“Nobody’s played much better than we have,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Detroit has been a little better. All the other teams in the division have done what we’ve done — gone good for three or four days, then gone bad for about a week.”

 But a race is a race, and it’s better than being the Washington Nationals. The Twins need to win this series and the four-game set in Detroit the last week of the season to have any chance of extending the Dome’s baseball life beyond the closing three-game set with Kansas City.

If this were an auto race, the Twins and Tigers would be dented Chevies with chipped paint leaving parts in the road. Tigers manager Jim Leyland scrambled to find starting pitchers this week, and Jarrod Washburn already has been scratched for Sunday with a knee injury. And the Twins find themselves weakened defensively at three positions — first base, where Cuddyer replaces Justin Morneau (stress fracture in lower back); third base, no matter who fills in for Joe Crede (sore back); and right field, where the Twins no longer have Cuddyer’s arm making runners think before taking extra bases. 

If you’re a believer, I will not dissuade you. I’ve seen stranger things happen. But this series, and the final two weeks of the season, will be especially important for three players who figure in the Twins’ future — not just for potential, but for payroll implications. Keep your eye on these Little Three:

JOSE MORALES: Gardenhire said Wednesday that he’ll find at-bats for hot-hitting Morales down the stretch, either at catcher or DH. That makes sense; Morales is batting .412 this month (7-for-17) and .348 in 18 starts behind the plate.

And that’s bad news for Mike Redmond, who at 38 might be on his last legs as a Twin. Morales still needs a lot of work defensively, but keeping him in Class AAA seems a waste if he can hit. Might as well let him learn in the big leagues. Though Redmond’s salary isn’t outrageous ($950,000, to Morales’ $400,000), it’s hard to imagine the Twins committing to three catchers.  

MATT TOLBERT: Gardenhire LOVES Tolbert, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a younger, faster Nick Punto, down to the weak bat (.206).

The difference between big-market teams and middle- or small-market teams often isn’t what they pay their stars, but what they budget for bench players. And Punto, who turns 32 in November and can’t even bunt reliably anymore, is better suited for utility duty. Problem is, he’s due to make $4 million next year. That’s fine for a starter, but far too much for a mid-market reserve. And it’s money the Twins might better use toward a veteran pitcher or a middle infielder.

Keeping Tolbert ($405,000) as the cheaper utility option makes sense. The Phillies have always liked Punto, who came through their organization, and might take him back. A Phils scout I talked to earlier this year still spoke highly of Punto. But if the Twins sour on Alexi Casilla and can’t deal Punto, the last Piranha might be the Opening Day second baseman.

BRIAN DUENSING:
Without Duensing’s 3-0 mark in five starts since Aug. 22, the Tigers series would be meaningless for the Twins. Duensing opposes Detroit’s Rick Porcello in tonight’s opener, the most significant start of Duensing’s pro career.

So where does Duesning fit in next year? Hard to say. The Twins put him in the bullpen in spring training to try and fill a hole, and that may be where he ultimately ends up. But with a few more poised, successful starts, Duesning might shoehorn his way into starting consideration.

“This has been kind of fun to watch,” Gardenhire said. “He’s become a major-league pitcher in a short time. Has he made a case for next year? I’d like to just get through this year and see who’s here.”

Mo’ money
Baseball hasn’t been immune to the tough economy. SportsBusiness Journal this week detailed how more and more major-league teams are turning to concerts for additional revenue. The Red Sox booked five dates into Fenway Park — two for Paul McCartney, two for the Dave Matthews band and one for Phish — that grossed more than $14 million in ticket sales:

This seems a natural for Target Field. Twins President Dave St. Peter said the club might book a show next year, but more likely will hold off until 2011 to let the new grass field mature.

“Rest assured, the Twins have done quite a bit of work reviewing current concert trends in MLB facilities,” St. Peter said in an email. “To that end, we expect Target Field to be the Upper Midwest’s preferred outdoor concert venue.”

The Twins are among only nine major-league teams showing attendance increases this season, according to baseballreference.com. The Twins were running more than 3,000 per game ahead of last year’s pace in mid-July and drew 15 consecutive crowds of more than 30,000 into mid-August. But the numbers fell off with school approaching and the club struggling. Going into Friday, the Twins are averaging 28,130, about 530 a game more than last year.

The story behind Rauch’s neck tattoo
Even on television, it’s impossible to miss the tattoo on the right side of reliever Jon Rauch’s neck, one of about a dozen he has on various parts of his body. “Pretty soon, they’ll all run together,” he said.

The neck tattoo — two interlocking wedding rings surrounded by olive branches — holds particular significance. Rauch said it honors his wife, Erica, who suffered postpartum osteoporosis after giving birth to their second daughter. It’s  a rare, and painful, condition.

“She had stress fractures in both legs, and was in a wheelchair for eight weeks trying to raise two kids,” Rauch said. “Fortunately, my mom was able to come in and help out.”

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