Twins off to fast start: Liriano returns to form

By Patrick Murphy

Coming into the 2010 MLB season, the excitement level surrounding the Minnesota Twins couldn’t have been much higher. After 27 years of playing baseball indoors at the Metrodome, 2010 marked the opening of Target Field, the Twins’ brand new outdoor stadium. In addition to the excitement that inevitably surrounds the opening of a new ballpark, the Twins were also fielding one of the best teams in all of baseball. Coming off of an AL Central Division Championship in 2009 and an offseason of player acquisitions, there was plenty of reason for optimism. The Twins began the season on an extended road trip that was designed to buy as much time for the weather to warm-up before the team’s first outdoor home opener in nearly 30 years. When the long-awaited home opener finally arrived on Monday, April 12, a capacity crowd at Target Field watched the Twins defeat the Boston Red Sox 5-2 on a beautiful 70-degree afternoon.

The Twins are currently leading the AL Central and are tied for the second best record in all of baseball with a 14-7 record as of 4:45 Thursday morning. The Twins have been effective in all aspects of the game, but have struggled to maintain consistency. Despite this, they have still managed an impressive record to this point.

Offensively, the Twins have been led by perennial hitting powerhouses, catcher Joe Mauer and First baseman Justin Morneau. Morneau is hitting .352 with four homeruns and 15 RBI on the season. Mauer is hitting .346 with 12 RBI. While Morneau and Mauer have performed well so far this year, the rest of the team has been inconsistent offensively. The fact that the team has still been very successful despite offensive inconsistencies is a good sign for the rest of the season. Once other players like Denard Span and Jason Kubel begin to hit greater consistently, the team will be a force to be reckoned with.

The Twins’ pitching has also been fairly inconsistent, but effective enough to keep the team in games. The two most successful pitchers thus far have both been surprises. When Joe Nathan, the best closer in the game, went down with a torn elbow ligament that required the notorious Tommy John surgery during spring training, many feared that the Twins’ playoff hopes were in serious peril without Nathan to anchor the team. There was plenty of debate both from within the organization and among fans and analysts about who would be the best replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Nathan. John Rauch, a reliever who joined the team last year, emerged as the team’s choice to fill in for Nathan. Standing at 6-foot-11, Rauch is the tallest player in major league baseball, and definitely has the intimidation factor when he comes in to close out games. Rauch has successfully converted saves in seven of eight opportunities thus far this season. In his one blown save, Rauch battled to keep the Twins tied and eventually won the game. If he is able to maintain anything close to his level of performance thus far, Rauch will prove a very worthy replacement for Joe Nathan.

While the Twins’ starting rotation has been largely mediocre to this point in the season, one starter has stood out as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Liriano, the most dominant pitcher in baseball in 2006 prior to Tommy John surgery, appears to have returned to form after twodifficult post-surgery seasons in 2008 and 2009. He currently boasts an absurd 0.93 ERA thanks to a 23-inning scoreless streak, during which time he has struck out 24 opposing hitters. If Liriano is able to stay healthy, he would be in the mix for AL Cy Young, but more importantly for the Twins, fill the void of rotation ace that has been empty since the departure of Johan Santana after the 2007 season.

While the Twins have room to improve as the season moves on, they should be happy with their performance thus far. Once the offense and starting rotation become more consistent, the Twins will be a very hard team to beat.