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Health, consistency could boost Twins

Health, consistency could boost Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ask Twins manager Ron Gardenhire what is the key for his club to be a contender in the American League Central in the second half, and he doesn't hesitate with his answer.

2009 Midterm Report

"Health," Gardenhire says.

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Minnesota has already had to battle through some ups and downs in the first half, and that's been due in part to an inability to keep a preferred everyday lineup on the field. The club was without All-Star catcher Joe Mauer for the entire first month of the season. Three starting pitchers have endured stints on the disabled list and both Denard Span and Nick Punto have missed time due to various ailments.

"Health is very important because our depth is not as good as it has been," Gardenhire said. "If we can stay healthy, I think this ballclub can compete. Maybe another arm down in the bullpen would help, too. Our bullpen is going to be a key in the second half. "

While the Twins were an early season favorite in the AL Central, they haven't quite lived up to expectations so far. They've been unable to get more than two games above the .500 mark, but there remains a feeling of optimism about their chances to compete -- if they can find more consistency.

"I think we definitely have better baseball ahead of us," closer Joe Nathan said. "We haven't played very well, and yet, we don't sit that far back in the division. I don't think anybody in here thinks we've hit our potential yet, and that's good, because we are not where we need to be. We've still got work to do. But the good news is there is plenty of time and we have plenty of games against opponents that are ahead of us."

Club MVP: It's a tossup between Justin Morneau and Mauer, who both have played critical roles in the club's offensive success. Morneau carried the club through April while Mauer was on the DL and he's been putting together MVP-like numbers once again. But Mauer has captured the national spotlight with his pursuit of .400 and his newfound power surge. The catcher might be the best story in baseball this season.

Call him 'Ace': Kevin Slowey was the fastest Twins pitcher to 10 wins, but the most consistent and impressive starter for the club in the first half was Nick Blackburn. The sinkerballer recently put together a stretch of nine consecutive quality starts and has delivered three complete games this season. In an inconsistent rotation, Blackburn has been Minnesota's one constant bright spot.

Greatest strength: It's hard to argue against anything other than the M&M boys, as they've been the club's offensive catalysts. But Nathan has also been one of the best in the game once again. The Twins are 40-2 when leading after eight innings, and Nathan -- tied for second in the Majors with 23 saves -- is a big part of that

Biggest problem: The Twins' bullpen has had a revolving door while club continues to look for another solid late-inning option to help get games to Nathan. But perhaps one of the biggest concerns has been second base. Alexi Casilla's lapse in play -- offensively and defensively -- earned him a trip back to Triple-A Rochester and the Twins have been searching for offense in their middle infield. The club is exploring second-base options on the market, but there is also hope that perhaps Casilla, recalled after Sunday's first-half finale, can find his '08 form again.

Biggest surprise: Gardenhire was unsure how a knuckleballer would fare out of the 'pen, but R.A. Dickey has been a huge boost for the club. He's provided them plenty of innings thanks to his rubber arm but he's also been remarkably consistent while posting a sub-3.50 ERA in 50-plus innings.

Team needs: Matt Guerrier has been able to hold down the eighth-inning role so far this season, but without some help in the spot, Guerrier could wear down like he did last season. As the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, Minnesota is expected to be on the lookout for another hard throwing right-hander to help bridge to Nathan. As stated earlier, second base is also an area of need.

He said it: "We hit more home runs than we probably ever have, but I think we still need to get back to what we do so well, and that's the little things." -- Nathan

Mark your calendar: The Twins have 43 contests against AL Central foes in the second half, including 25 of their final 35 games. If the AL Central crown is still on the line in late September and Minnesota is in the hunt, a nine-game road trip with stops in Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit will likely be the make-or-break stretch.

Fearless second-half prediction: The Twins will once again be contenders in the AL Central race in September, but whether they'll have enough to capture it all remains a question.

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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