Only 13 games remain in the regular season, and the Twins are in crunch time. Heading into their series with Cleveland, Minnesota sits 1 1/2 games behind Chicago in the American League Central, with its final three-game series against the White Sox on Sept. 23-25 at the Metrodome looming.
I know it's a nerve-wracking time for Twins fans, but considering the preseason predictions, this seems like the time to appreciate what the team has accomplished. That's not to say that anyone should be content if the club doesn't make the playoffs. But this is exactly where most teams would love to be at this time of the year, and the division race is far from decided.
The next seven games on the road are going to be critical for this ballclub. The Twins have struggled in Cleveland in previous years, and the Indians are surging right now. And, of course, the Rays have been the most stunning story in baseball this season, and they have yet to wrap up the AL East. So the four games with the Twins at Tropicana Field will be big for them as well as Minnesota.
So even though it's likely to be a roller-coaster ride, don't forget to relish in the excitement of a pennant chase. Sure, these title hunts have been common for the Twins this decade. But just look back to last year as a memory of what September is like without meaningful baseball. So as we dig into this week's mailbag, I leave you with this reminder -- enjoy it.
Now that Michael Cuddyer is back, do you see Denard Span moving to left field to improve defense and Delmon Young filling the DH role, adding more hitting to the lineup? -- Jennifer A., Truman, Minn.
Although Cuddyer has returned from his injury, his foot is still not completely healed, and he's yet to start running at 100 percent. For now his role will strictly be that of a pinch-hitter, and manager Ron Gardenhire has said that he'll pinch-run for Cuddyer if he gets on base, as he did on Sunday in Baltimore.
Could that role change over the coming weeks as Cuddyer's health continues to improve? Possibly. Cuddyer started a Major League game on Monday for the first time since late June, and Gardenhire seems hesitant to test the foot on the basepaths, let alone the outfield. But though the outfield seems an unlikely spot for Cuddyer, he could become a right-handed-hitting option for the DH spot. A lot could come down to how he is swinging and how he looks in pregame workouts when he's running. For now, expect to see him in pinch-hit roles and trying to work his way back into a bigger role with the club.
I'm not sure Gardenhire is the type of manager to do it, but might he consider using one of the upcoming days off to give four of our starters normal rest, and delay Francisco Liriano an extra day so that he is used during the White Sox series?
-- Paul L., Elkton, Md.
The Twins have not discussed their pitching plans for the White Sox series. Right now the schedule has Liriano throwing in Sunday's finale at Tampa Bay on Sept. 21, meaning that he wouldn't throw in the series against Chicago. With an off-day that Monday, the Twins could try to bring Liriano back on three days' rest to pitch in the series finale vs. the White Sox on Thursday, Sept. 25.
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Gardenhire said that he'll wait until the series with the White Sox gets closer before deciding how the club might alter the rotation with the off-day. Right now the rotation for the series with Chicago would be Scott Baker, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn. Perkins and Blackburn have struggled recently, with Perkins giving up six earned runs in three innings in his last start and the Twins going 1-6 in Blackburn's last seven starts. So there is a chance, depending on how the starters fare over the rest of the road trip, that Gardenhire could shake up the rotation for that critical series with Chicago.
With the AL Central leaders teeter-tottering at the top of the division, what would happen if the teams finish tied for first? Would there be a one-game playoff, or would the team with the best head-to-head record win?
-- Jon E., Duluth, Minn.
The only time that a head-to-head record comes into play is when two teams in the same division would both make the playoffs, one as the division winner and the other as the Wild Card. Otherwise, a one-game playoff will take place. This past Friday, a coin flip was held in New York to decide where that playoff would take place. The Twins lost the coin flip, meaning that the game would take place at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. The one-game playoffs are supposed to take place on Monday, Sept. 29, the day after the regular season ends. But since the White Sox missed one of their games with the Tigers this weekend due to the numerous rainouts, that extra game between them would take place on Monday, and the playoff game would be played on Tuesday, Sept. 30. Knowing that the Twins are just 2-7 at U.S. Cellular Field this season, the better scenario for them would be to clinch the division before a playoff is needed.
Is there any reason why Alexi Casilla isn't attempting more stolen bases this season? He has the Minor League numbers to suggest he could steal 50 bases in a full season.
-- Adam B., Des Plaines, Ill.
Casilla is just one player who has helped add an influx of speed to the Twins' lineup this season, and that increase in speed has excited Gardenhire and his coaching staff this season. But they also feel that perhaps some of the young players haven't used their speed enough. Although the club has seen an increase in stolen-base numbers, there is a feeling that those numbers could jump even higher once such players as Casilla, Carlos Gomez and Span learn how to take advantage of steal situations better than they do now. The coaching staff has tried to encourage them to run earlier in counts, especially when pitchers are slow to home plate and have a high leg kick early in the at-bat. Though Casilla's numbers haven't been tremendous this year (six steals in 83 games), there is a feeling -- as you suggested -- that the number could increase with experience in the big leagues.
Can you explain what has been going on with Justin Morneau's home run slump this year? This guy is a line-drive hitter, but he still should be getting at least 30 to 35 a year, and right now he only has 23.
-- Clint B., Menomonie, Wis.
The decrease in Morneau's home run total has been somewhat surprising. But he and the coaching staff feel that the decrease is due, in part, to a change in how opposing pitchers are approaching him. He's been receiving more pitches away than he has in past years, and rather than avoid those, he has started to use the entire field rather than just pull the ball. It's allowed him to keep his average above .300 again and, even more important to him, he's been able to have a .381 average with runners in scoring position.
But that doesn't mean this down power year will become a trend. The first baseman still very much revels in being a power hitter, and as he continues to grow as a hitter, look for that power number to bounce back along with the other numbers staying strong.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.