Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett will return Monday to the Metrodome, a place which was supposed to be the scene of their greatest triumphs. As things turned out, it was merely a stepping stone to a bigger and better thing.
As fate would have it, Garza and Bartlett turned out to be the missing pieces the Rays needed last season to complete their ascent to the top of the American League and a subsequent trip to the World Series. Bartlett's presence at shortstop solidified Tampa Bay's infield and Garza proved to be a clutch performer on the mound.
Meanwhile, Young's offensive production last season was viewed as a disappointment in comparison to the solid numbers he posted for the Rays as a rookie in 2007. Harris also failed to live up to his offensive promise.
The 2009 season finds both the Twins and Rays trying to piece together some semblance of consistency. The difference is that Minnesota, at 9-10, is in the thick of the egalitarian American League Central Division title picture, but Tampa Bay, at 7-12, is mired in fifth place in the AL East.
The Twins have been beset by problems on the mound and at the plate. They have scored 80 runs in 19 games but they have surrendered 103 runs.
Glen Perkins has been the only reliable starter, although Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey have flashed signs that they are rounding into form. The bullpen has been uncharacteristically rock solid during the past week.
Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Justin Morneau continue to be the only reliable front-liners for the Twins when they have a stick in their hands. Each is hitting over .300, and they are the only Twins with double-digit figures in RBI.
Tampa Bay is also experiencing their fair share of woes in the batter's box (.256 team batting average and .336 team on-base percentage), although Evan Longoria, Bartlett, and Carlos Pena are all enjoying torrid Aprils.
Longoria, who is batting .358, already has 13 extra-base hits and 16 RBI. Bartlett is hitting a crisp .364 coupled with a gaudy on-base percentage of .408. And Pena, despite his .243 batting average, is a run-producer of the highest order with eight homers and 21 RBI.
The Tampa Bay pitching staff, which has surrendered 90 runs thus far, has been paced by starters James Shields and Scott Kazmir who both possess ERA below 4.00. Garza is still struggling to recapture last year's form.
The Twins' Scott Baker is scheduled to kick things off Monday evening. He's struggling to recapture the form last year that earned him ace status. In his two starts this season, he's 0-2 with a 12.46 ERA in 8.3 innings.
Tampa Bay will counter with Jeff Niemann (1-2, 5.40) who is coming off his best performance of the year Wednesday against Seattle. He allowed three runs in 5.1 innings to pick up his first victory.
The pendulum may swing back in the Twins' favor on Tuesday when a struggling Francisco Liriano is expected to get the nod. The Rays are only 1-7 against lefties thus far this season.
The Rays will counter with James Shields (3-1, 3.67).
The series finale Wednesday will pit Nick Blackburn (1-4, 4.44) against the Rays' Scott Kazmir (3-1, 3.97).
The Twins may enjoy a marked advantage if one or more games with the Rays boil down to the ninth inning. Closer Joe Nathan (1.50 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and three saves) has been impregnable. The Rays' primary stopper, Troy Percival, has two saves, but his ERA is 4.15 and his WHIP stands at 2.93.
Minnesota may also get a shot in the arm with the return of All-Star catcher Joe Mauer. He is scheduled to return Friday, but may be ready for a starting assignment as early as Tuesday, according to some reports.
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