Heading into the All-Star Break, Twins fans split into two camps.
The “oh God, it’s all over” camp reacted to the hometown nine’s recent run of form—a poor one, dropping them into third place in the decent AL Central.
The other camp was the “Second Halfers.” They’ve seen this team really catch fire in the second half of the season and remember pretty well how the performance of several starting pitchers (like Scott Baker) started to pick up rapidly after the annual midsummer classic.
It took the "Brothers ‘No," Francicso Liriano and Carl Pavano (along with his sidekick, Super Mario’s moustache), to breathe life back into the Twins starting rotation and help point the club toward the usual second half rally. Although not in a hole nearly as deep as last season’s at this time, the Twins desperately needed solid starting pitching to reappear in the four game series with the White Sox.
The first game was Kevin Slowey’s, and he didn’t last too long, letting a lead escape him early in the game. It was more of the same from Slowey, who seems to have lost most of the movement on his fastball, and the repercussions from this latest inadequate start have yet to be fully felt. More on that later.
Next up was Liriano, Frankie Fastball, The Franchise, call him what you will. The hurler who turned in incredible April (enough to earn him AL Pitcher of the Month honors) and then hit an up and down patch through May and June returned to his best on Friday against the White Sox, going seven and two thirds and letting the bullpen relax for most of the night.
Only giving up two runs on a Chicago lineup that was on the verge of going on yet another double-digit winning streak was a much needed shot in the arm for the Twins pitching staff.
Next up was Carl Pavano. He established himself as more or less the staff ace early in the season and has consistently performed in the clutch for the Twins. His complete game against Chicago on Saturday night, accomplished in under two hours, was his fourth of the season. Only having a one-run lead for most of the game, Pavano worked the lineup and managed to hold the Sox to just two runs for the second night in a row.
These two performances went a long way toward calming down the entire pitching staff. When Nick Blackburn took the mound on Sunday afternoon, he got off to his first strong start in several outings.
Although he gave up four runs in just five innings of work, this is a considerable upgrade from giving up many runs in the first three innings, as Blackburn had done in most of his starts leading into the break. Hopefully Blackburn can use the first few innings of this most recent start as a building point for his next one.
In any event, with Pavano and Liriano showing that they’re ready for the second half, the rest of the rotation has a much better chance of following suit. What’s more is that both of them are now able to do something the best pitchers do: adjust on the fly.
Pavano has been doing this for the Twins since mid-April, but for Liriano, demonstrating the ability to adjust his approach to hitters in the middle of the game is something new and promising.
Liriano’s MO has been similar all season: getting off to a good start in the first couple innings gave him confidence and let him cruise through the rest of the game. If he were tagged for a couple runs early, the rest of the game was pretty rocky for him, as well.
Against the White Sox, Liriano faced a potentially disastrous jam in the fifth inning, somewhat of an oddity given how his games have normally gone. Instead of folding, Liriano got his game face back on, mixed his pitches, and managed to get the Sox to leave several men on base. This is a definite good sign.
The confidence that Liriano and Pavano will have now to work off of will hopefully rub off on the rest of the starting staff to some degree. Next up in the rotation is “Big Spot Scott” Baker. He did more than his share to carry the rotation in the second half last season, and he will be looked upon again to do the same.
Hoping to keep his pitches down a little lower than he did in the first half, Baker will be able to relax just a little more on the mound knowing that each start isn’t quite as critical as they were at this time last season. The Twins now sit only a game and a half back of the White Sox and have the easiest schedule (on paper) of any of their competitors in the division.
It is worth mentioning that, despite the success that Liriano and Pavano helped breed in the team, the starting rotation certainly isn’t settled. Kevin Slowey’s performance on Thursday night moved him one step closer to a ticket to Rochester, NY and the Twins’ AAA affiliate. If he cannot regain movement on his fastball, Slowely’s spot in the rotation will likely be taken by current bullpen hand Brian Duensing.
Duensing, who started a playoff game for the Twins in New York last season, caught fire for the club in the second half last season. Duensing’s place in the ‘pen will be taken by someone from the Twins’ minor league system. Rumors abound as far as who this person will be, but the two most prominent names are Anthony Slama and Kyle Waldrop.
Slama has been on Twins fans’ radar for a few seasons as a pitcher who doesn’t overpower, but disguises his pitches well. The Twins pitching coaches have been worried that all Slama had to really rely on was his mastery of hiding his pitches, but so far in AAA, he has been quite impressive. The number of walks he has issued is a potential worry, however.
Waldrop enjoyed a very good first half of the AAA season with Rochester as well. In total this season, he has pitched in 41 games and only issued 14 earned runs, putting his ERA at 2.09. With 41 strike outs compared with 15 walks, Waldrop has been impressive this season.
Regardless, with The Brothers ‘No finding their fire early in this second half and Baker looking to reacquire the stuff he had this time last season, the Twins rotation seems to already be in much better shape than it appeared just a week ago.