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Surprising starters lead Twins to wins

Young starters lead Twins to wins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Having lost 400 innings with the departures of Johan Santana and Carlos Silva this offseason, the Twins' starting staff was without a doubt the club's biggest question mark heading into the 2008 season.


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And the assumption entering Spring Training was that the success of the rotation relied largely upon the health of Francisco Liriano.

If the 2006 Rookie of the Year candidate -- who was coming off a 15-month layoff due to elbow surgery -- could recapture his form from that magical year, it might make up for the loss of the club's ace.

Instead, Liriano suffered through a troublesome stint in the Twins' rotation back in April. After going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA in three starts, the talented left-hander was sent back to the Minors to find command of his fastball.

Surely, that was a sign that the rotation was in for its share of struggles. Or so it seemed at the time.

Now with the first half completed, Liriano sits at Triple-A Rochester having put together a string of good starts and looking to be nearing his old form. But that doesn't mean an imminent return to the rotation for the lefty -- there's just no room.

That's because it's been the success of the club's young quartet of starters Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey along with veteran Livan Hernandez that has catapulted the Twins into the thick of the race for the American League Central. An unlikely scenario, indeed.

Despite not having a starter who had made more than 48 career starts -- except for Hernandez -- coming into the season, the Twins' rotation had a 34-28 record with a 4.52 ERA through the first 89 games. And they've set the tone for the success of the entire club.

"The biggest thing that I've said all along is that I expected inconsistencies," pitching coach Rick Anderson said of his relatively inexperienced staff. "So the consistency they keep showing is surprising. You are seeing a lot of improvements from each one of them."

Still, the young staff has endured its share of growing pains. It included a rough stretch from May 30 to June 10 in which the rotation went 11 games without recording a quality start.

But after getting pummeled in a four-game series at Chicago last month at the end of that stretch, the Twins' pitching staff and catchers held a meeting before their first contest in Cleveland. The usual pre-series meeting took on a heavier tone than usual as some of the club's veterans spoke up about the slide -- and what it would take to bounce back.

TWINS TOP PERFORMANCES
6/28, MIL 5, MIN 1 -- Gomez's great grab
Carlos Gomez robs Ryan Braun of a home run in the top of the ninth.
Highlights: Watch
6/4, MIN 7, BAL 5 -- Super sac fly
Joe Mauer drives in two on a sacrifice fly against Baltimore in a victory.
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5/28, MIN 9, KC 8 -- Home run heroes
Craig Monroe's pinch-hit three-run homer ties the game in the ninth before the Twins win it in the 10th on Justin Morneau's solo shot.
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5/16, MIN 4, COL 2 -- Gomez's gutsy catch
Carlos Gomez crashes into wall with a game-saving catch for the game's final out.
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7/2, MIN 7, DET 0 -- Clutch shovel pass
Nick Punto dives for the stop and shovels to second baseman Alexi Casilla for the forceout to save at least a run.
Highlights: Watch

"A few guys got some things off their chest and I think the main thing was that we felt we were a lot better than what we showed," catcher Joe Mauer said. "We have some guys in here that can throw the ball and perform well at this level. They just had to kind of remind themselves that they can do it."

The meeting certainly has appeared to work. Instead of backing away from their approach, the young starters have chosen to take an even more aggressive stance on the mound. After June 13, the five starters recorded 18 quality starts in their next 22 games, while posting a combined 3.00 ERA.

And it's that type of stretch that has the Twins feeling confident heading into the second staff.

"It's a young staff and yes, they could go through a bad stretch again," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's a long season. But right now we've been getting what we need out of them, and that's why we are winning ballgames."

Just how long the current streak of success by the staff might last is, of course, still a question mark. But it certainly doesn't hurt to have a pitcher of Liriano's ability waiting in the wings, should that starting staff hit any bumps in the road.

"It's a great situation that we don't have to rush him," Anderson said. "We brought him up and showed he wasn't quite ready. Now he's throwing really well. His last few outings have been outstanding and he's starting to find it. ... Not having room for him yet, well, it's not a bad problem to have."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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