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August 9, 2010

On the Beat

Heading Toward a Showdown

by John Perrotto

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Keeping October 4 open is probably a good idea for the Twins and the White Sox. That is the day after the regular season ends, the date usually reserved, unless that pesky NFL and its Monday Night Football gets in the way, for one-game playoffs if they are necessary to break ties for division titles and wild-card playoff berths.

The American League Central has needed an extra game to determine its winner each of the past two seasons, and the Twins have been involved in both 163rd games. The Twins lost to the White Sox in 2008 and beat the Tigers last season, both games fittingly decided by one run.

"It turns out to be a dogfight every year," Twins right-hander Kevin Slowey said. "You just expect to the AL Central to be this way."

The Twins and White Sox have certainly set the stage for a toe-to-toe battle for the division title. The White Sox hold a ½-game lead over the Twins with seven weeks left in the season, and they are realistically the only two teams still in contention as the injury-riddled Tigers have fallen nine games off the pace.

The Twins and White Sox square off in a three-game series beginning Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field.

"I would imagine this is going to go right down to the end of the season," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It does every year, so you get used to it. Hopefully, it will go down to the end again and we'll be one of the teams there."

Chances seem good that the Twins will indeed be in the race at the end. They have already suffered a bad stretch this season and come through it with their hopes of a sixth playoff appearance in nine seasons intact.

The Twins bottomed out in the first game after the All-Star break when they lost to the White Sox, for their 14th defeat in 20 games, to drop 4 ½ games back. Considering first baseman Justin Morneau had suffered a concussion a week earlier, it was easy to think the Twins were ready to fade from view in the division race.

Yet the Twins have surged since hitting that low spot. They have won 17 of their last 24 games despite missing their cleanup hitter. In fact, it is the second straight year the Twins have surged after Morneau, who leads the AL with a .437 on-base percentage and has a .358 TAv, got hurt.

Morneau, who is likely to begin an injury rehabilitation assignment this week, did not play after September 12 last season because of a back injury. The Twins were two games under. 500 and 5 ½ games behind the Tigers at the time but overcame the deficit by winning 17 of their last 21 games.

"You don't want to get into the habit of trying to win without Morneau every year, but it does speak well of the depth we've built with our team," Gardenhire said. "We've got enough quality hitters that we've been able to withstand him being out of the lineup."

The Twins have been able to cover for Morneau quite well, as Michael Cuddyer has shifted from right field to first base and designated hitter Jason Kubel has taken over in right while Jim Thome has assumed DH duties.

Another area in which the Twins added depth at the non-waiver trading deadline is the bullpen, as they acquired closer Matt Capps from the Nationals for catching prospect Wilson Ramos. Capps enables the Twins to move Jon Rauch back into a set-up role, and Gardenhire feels that will allow him to optimize the use of his relief corps in the stretch run.

"Being able to add a pitcher of Capps' ability and move the big boy (Rauch) back into a set-up role should have a positive effect all the way through the bullpen," Gardenhire said. "We're in a situation now where we don't have to completely burn out Matty Guerrier and the other set-up guys like Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain. That's going to be important."

Just like every inning and every at-bat is likely to be important in another tightly contested AL Central race.

"The thing you learn from playing two straight Game Nos. 163 is that every game matters," Slowey said. "You can't take a day off. You can't give away a game. Every game can truly make a difference between going to the playoffs or sitting at home for the postseason. Every guy in this clubhouse truly understands that."

---

Mets owner Fred Wilpon ended speculation about Omar Minaya's future last week by saying the general manager would return next season. As far as Minaya was concerned, he never felt there was a reason to doubt his status, even though the Mets are likely to miss the postseason for the fourth straight season as they are in third place in the National League East, nine games behind the Braves, and are also 7 ½ games back of the wild card-leading Giants.

"The fact of the matter is that I have a contract two years beyond this, so it's nothing new," Minaya said. "I'll continue to work hard and continue to do the job to the best of my ability and our staff, and we are going to work hard, as far as there is nothing new about it, I have a contract for a couple more years, and I look forward to doing that."

Minaya, though, realizes that more blame will be placed at his feet if the Mets don't pull off a big comeback and end their post-season drought. That is the nature of the beast in the New York market.

"Whenever you are GM and the players don't do good, you as the GM, you yourself, own up to it," Minaya said. "You want the players to do good. If the players do good, I've always said, you give credit to the player and the coaches. GMs, when the teams don't do well, you have to be there. You are the one accountable for it. Not only in baseball, but in basketball and all sports. Whenever you put a team together, you always hope you are putting a team together to perform. I wish it always worked out that way, but it doesn't always work out that way."

The Mets appeared to run up the white flag Saturday when they called up shortstop Ruben Tejeda and outfielder Fernando Martinez from the minor leagues and released veteran infielder Alex Cora. However, Minaya said those moves were made to help the Mets now and not look to the future and he will continue to look for ways to bolster his roster.

"Every day you wake up in the morning and I talk to my staff and you try to be creative—how can we make the team better, whether through trade or internally?" Minaya said. "That's what you do as a general manager, every day. I'm not hesitant at all. If the opportunity comes up, we will. Look, there's a lot of baseball left. We'll try to close the gaps as best we can. We still have some games against the teams that are in front of you. You've got to win those games."

---

The Cubs are giving off the impression of a team playing out the string. They have lost 10 of their last 11 to fall to 17 games under .500 at 47-64. While GM Jim Hendry admits that all hope of contending this season is lost, he makes it clear to the players that he is watching and evaluating with an eye toward 2011.

"I want to see a good effort, first and foremost," Hendry said. "We've been so inconsistent offensively, and for a couple of weeks, we didn't pitch well after the break. So I'd like to see us play hard, win as many games as we can. Just don't want to be limping home in any way, shape, or form. I don't think we'll have that problem. It's going to be a good opportunity for a lot of people to establish themselves going into the offseason. I think we'll see a few more guys from the minor-league system eventually here, whether anyone else is traded, or in September you'll see some other new guys."

The Cubs, on the surface, would seem like a team in need of some major rebuilding. However, Hendry does not believe his team is that far away from returning to contender status.

"When you start seeing the improvement in the young people that we have and the type of young arms that we have and the arms that we have coming, you make three or four solid moves in the offseason and your young guys keep developing, then you're right back to being a contending team, and that's the way we're going to go about it," he said.

Hendry reiterated that he will conduct an exhaustive search to replace retiring manager Lou Piniella. Hendry would like to have a replacement in place by the time the Cubs hold their organizational meetings in early November.

The latest rumors making the baseball rounds is that Joe Torre will leave the Dodgers to become the Cubs' manager and Ryne Sandberg, manager of Triple-A Iowa, will serve an apprenticeship as the bench coach before eventually replacing Torre.

---

Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg and president Nolan Ryan plan to extend manager Ron Washington's contract as soon as the season is over. Washington's contract expires at the end of the season because the Rangers hesitated to give him an extension last year despite a 87-win year because they knew he had failed a drug test due to cocaine use.

However, the Rangers have a 7 ½-game lead on the Athletics in AL West this season. Just as importantly, Washington has passed multiple drug tests in the last year.

"Nolan and I have talked about it," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said. "There's no doubt we see Ron as our guy moving forward; he's done a very good job since he got here. Our inclination is not to create any distractions during the season, but it is a priority to address shortly thereafter."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees and Giants have stepped to the front of the line to sign outfielder Jose Guillen, designated for assignment by the Royals last week, once he clears waivers and becomes a free agent. … The Cardinals have some interest in Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche now that David Freese is out for the season. … The Blue Jays will look to trade catcher John Buck  once he comes off the disabled list, if he clears waivers, now that prospect J.P. Arencibia is in the majors. … The Brewers plan to play rookie center fielder Lorezno Cain regularly with Carlos Gomez on the disabled list. … The Dodgers will consider non-tendering injured catcher Russell Martin in the offseason as a cost-cutting measure. … Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval will remain in the United States in the offseason to work on his conditioning rather than play winter ball in the Dominican Repbulic.

---

Scouts' takes on various major-league players:

Royals right-hander Brian Bannister: "I think this guy has some upside as a back-of-the-rotation starter, but he's just so inconsistent. He's never been able to repeat his delivery and that's been the root of a lot of his problems."

Tigers left fielder Brennan Boesch: "Pitchers have figured him out and made adjustments and now it's his turn to adjust back or wind up being nothing more than a flash in the pan. He's fishing for pitches right now."

Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto: "He's always had a great arm, but now you can see he is maturing into a good pitcher. He's mixing his pitches more and slowing the game down when he gets in trouble. He's not a No. 1 starter yet, but he's getting closer."

Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez: "The fact that this guy is 7-9 is just further proof that you can't judge a pitcher solely on his win-loss record. He was 19-5 last season and his stuff is basically the same and he's pitching almost as well. Believe me, there's nothing wrong with him that some run support wouldn't help. He's still as nasty as ever."

White Sox closer Bobby Jenks: "He's having a crisis of confidence right now. He doesn't believe he can get the job done. You can see it in his body language and the way he is so tentative in working the hitters."

Blue Jays left-hander Brad Mills: "It's real simple for this kid. If he keeps the ball down, he's got a chance to be a decent big-league starter. If he gets the ball up, he gets killed because his stuff is marginal."

Rangers outfielder David Murphy: "He's hot right now, but I hope that doesn't make the Rangers give up on (rookie center fielder) Julio Borbon. Murphy's OK as a fourth outfielder but that's it. Borbon has more upside."

Mets left-hander Oliver Perez: "The Mets really need to cut their losses and release him. He used to be a guy with good stuff who didn't know how to pitch, but now he's totally useless and taking up a roster spot."

Cubs second baseman Blake DeWitt: "He looks like a different hitter since the Dodgers traded him. He used to get caught in between on a lot of pitches but he now he's turning the bat loose and putting some good swings on the ball."

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Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:

Cardinals (61-49) at Reds (64-48), Monday-Wednesday August 9-11

Chris Carpenter vs. Mike Leake, 7:10 p.m.; Jaime Garcia vs. Johnny Cueto, 7:10 p.m.; Adam Wainwright vs. Bronson Arroyo, 12:35 p.m.

Yankees (69-41) at Rangers (64-47), Tuesday-Wednesday August 10-11

Phil Hughes vs. C.J. Wilson, 8:05 p.m.; Javier Vazquez vs. Cliff Lee, 8:05 p.m.

 Twins (63-49) at White Sox (63-48), Tuesday-Thursday August 10-12

Scott Baker vs. Freddy Garcia, 8:10 p.m.; Kevin Slowey vs. John Danks, 8:10 p.m.; Francisco Liriano vs. Gavin Floyd, 8:10 p.m.  

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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