Exching

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Six-time All-Star Joe Mauer is going to miss the Midsummer Classic with an oblique injury this year. This would normally not be cause for alarm -- Mauer missed it in 2007 and 2011 as well -- except that the game is being played in Minneapolis, and Major League Baseball designated him the All-Star Ambassador in April, meaning that he will be hosting the event. The three-time AL batting champion, three-time Gold Glove winner and four-time Silver Slugger will have to glad-hand at the FanFest while knowing he is not on the All-Star team this season. “It’s been a trying year," Mauer admitted the morning after he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. “It’s frustrating any time you go on the DL, but’s it’s even more frustrating when you feel like you’ve been playing pretty well lately, and it felt like things were going my way."

The key phrase with Mauer this season has been “stick to the plan." Through all his early season struggles that have accompanied his move to first base and recovery from concussion, Mauer has been trying to do what has worked for him his whole career -- with mixed results.
“I’m feeling pretty good, actually, which is even more frustrating because I’m hitting a lot of balls hard and not having much to show for it," he said at the end of May. “Hopefully that turns here soon. I just have to try to have some good at-bats and keep having some good at-bats and hopefully they keep falling."

“It is un-Mauer-like, but he’ll get going," general manager Terry Ryan assured the media following the press conference announcing the signing of Kendrys Morales. “His track record is too good, his health is too good, there is no reason he can’t string together four or five games quickly and, all of a sudden, it’s happening.

“It’ll return. He’ll have a way of figuring things out."

“My experience with Joe is when it’s all said and done his numbers are going to be there," offered Terry Steinbach, himself a Minnesotan and former catcher. “Sometimes he starts off quicker, sometimes he starts a little bit slower, but he’s a professional hitter, a great hitter, and just through the course of time, it’s gonna happen."

“It doesn’t happen overnight," echoed Gardenhire back in May. “We’re only a month into the season. He’ll be fine."

Mauer Apologists. That’s what anybody who has brushed off the former catcher’s sub-par numbers at the plate have been called. In reality what people are saying is: He’ll get better. And recently, he has. But still, .250, .260 or .270 doesn’t make you a major league All-Star, especially at first base.

Maybe it’s that thought -- the insistence that he’ll get better as long as he trusts the process -- that results in Mauer taking the brunt of the blame for the Twins’ downfall since 2010. He is a microcosm of the Twins Way: Keep doing it the way it’s been done and results will follow. That’s not to say Minnesota has eschewed advanced statistics -- they hired Jack Goin primarily as a stats guru -- or that they are completely averse to change. But they believe in a system that works and tend to stick to it.

Having said that, we’ve seen a little more frustration from Mauer than in years past. Typically laconic and reserved, Gentleman Joe has piped up recently, at least by his standards. When he says, “It’s funny, I feel I’ve had some bad pitches called on me," as he did in mid-April, he’s saying a lot. When he says, “I’m probably a lot more frustrated than those people who were booing," as he did at the end of May, he’s saying a lot. When he says, “It’s hard to deal with, All-Star Game or not," that’s big.
People confuse his stoic nature with indifference. He cares, and the losing wears on him.
He’s never going to have a Kevin Love moment where he tells a reporter that his team do not have a plan, even though the team has had three 90-loss seasons and only one winning season since he signed his eight-year, $184 million contract in 2010. He’s never going to get upset with the fans, even when they booed him for getting injured in 2011 and for slumping this year, even though he knows many of those same fans would have treated him like he was LeBron James if he had announced he was going to join the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or another big-market team before signing his blockbuster deal.
He’s never going to say it, but he’s probably not thrilled that he shoulders a lot of the blame for the team’s recent losing records. Twins fans got used to division titles. Twins fans got used to playoff appearances. Twins fans were expecting that with the opening of a new ballpark, the team would become the St. Louis Cardinals North. Instead, they became the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Milwaukee Brewers -- teams that got new parks and emptied them out with losing seasons.
Mauer has become the scapegoat for the Twins’ organizational issues
There’s a lot more people tweeting about Mauer’s inadequacies that those of the Twins front office. Sure, people talk about Ramos-for-Capps, Garza-for-Young and Hardy-for-Hoey, but Bill Smith is not scapegoated for the Twins’ failures like David Kahn is for the Minnesota Timberwolves woes.
Blame often falls squarely on Mauer’s shoulders even though it’s not his fault that the rotation combusted in 2011 and hasn’t fully recovered. There isn’t much thought given to the fact that Michael Cuddyer, Matt Garza, Francisco Liriano, J.J. Hardy, Carlos Gomez and Justin Morneau are all playing on different teams now. And few people mention that recent first round picks, Chris Parmelee (2006) and Aaron Hicks (2008), haven’t panned out so far and that a third, Trevor Plouffe (2004), has offered inconsistent production.
But Mauer is making $23 million and he doesn’t hit home runs, he’s been slumping this year and he plays every day -- so blame him. It’s simpler to blame one man than many. He’s Bill Buckner. He’s Steve Bartman.
Nobody talks about how the Red Sox were up two runs at the top of the 10th in 1986. Or how the New York Mets tied the game by hitting three straight two-out singles off of Calvin Schiraldi and coaxing a wild pitch from Bob Stanley. Or that the Boston Red Sox were leading 3-0 in Game 7 and blew that lead.
All they talk about is the ball that rolled between Buckner’s legs.
Similarly, in the Bartman case, nobody talks about how Mark Prior walked Luis Castillo on a wild pitch following the incident, allowing Juan Pierre to advance to third. Or that Alex Gonzalez mishandled a routine double-play ball that would have gotten them out of the inning. Or that it was the eighth inning and the team was leading 3-0 before Bartman reached over the outfield wall. All they talk about is Bartman’s ill-advised attempt to catch a foul ball.
Yes, Twins fans are fed up with the organization. Once a model for how a small-market team should be run -- akin to the Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays -- Minnesota is creeping towards Seattle Mariners territory. Plouffe, Parmelee and Hicks are looking more and more like Dennis Ackley, Justin Smoak and Mike Zunino every day. They have been accused of fostering a “country club" culture, one that has refused to adapt to today’s game with platooning and advanced metrics.
Some of that is true, some of it isn’t. But the bottom line is Mauer is the one that gets pilloried. He’s Mr. Minnesota Twin. He advocated keeping manager Ron Gardenhire when his contract was up last season. He is quiet and patient, and he has never complained about the way things are done in Minnesota despite the recent losses that have piled up.
As a result, he’s been accused of being soft, greedy and complacent. People got mad when he took off time due to leg injuries and his concussion and other minor ailments. They can’t stand that he makes $23 million and hasn’t hit more than 20 home runs since his MVP season in 2009. And they don’t like that he doesn’t seem upset when he’s slumping.
The bottom line is Joe Mauer went from hometown hero to scapegoat since signing long-term with the Twins in 2010. The real question is: How did this happen?
He could have been Minnesota’s LeBron James
Think back to 2010. The Twins were in a much happier place: The team had just won its fifth Central Division title, had a strong core of players on the major league roster and were opening a new ballpark. Minnesota appeared to be on the cusp of breaking through against the New York Yankees -- eventually David had to slay Goliath -- and their homegrown catcher was going to lead the way.
Mauer was coming off of an MVP season, hitting .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. No. 7 jerseys were flying off the shelf, and the Twins had to assure that they would sell out their new stadium, Target Field -- the House that Mauer Built. Had they not re-signed him, $184 million price tag or not, not only would the “new era of outdoor baseball" have been a tougher sell, but Mauer would have become public enemy No. 1 in Minnesota.
In the same year that LeBron James made “The Decision" to “Take his talents to South Beach," leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, it would have been yet another blow to die-hard, small-market fans. It may be harder to fathom now following the three straight 90-loss seasons, but Mauer would have been LeBron. Someone would have burnt a jersey. He would have been booed -- not for being injured or slumping, but for betraying the place where he was born and raised.
The basketball analogy is apt here too because had Mauer chosen basketball, and had the ability to be an NBA star, perhaps his scapegoating would have been a little more justified. LeBron was able to carry an undermanned Cavs team to the NBA Finals in 2007, but he was able to get them to the playoffs five years in a row before departing to join Miami. One player can drag a team to the playoffs in basketball, but the same cannot be said in baseball. Mauer can’t bat in the 3-, 4- and 5-hole. He can’t pitch in the rotation. He’s one of nine guys on the field; not one of five.
There are a few people that have disliked Mauer since the beginning -- not enough power, too quiet -- and, to be fair, they’ve remained consistent, even through his better seasons. At the same time, no matter how much you think of one player, he can only do so much. Joey Votto can’t turn the Cincinnati Reds into the Big Red Machine. Andrew McCutcheon can’t turn the Pirates into the We Are Family team of 1979. Mauer can’t turn the Twins into Cardinals North.
It can’t go without saying, though, that there are many people that held Mauer up to be a hometown hero, a baseball god, but as soon as he suffered knee and head injuries -- as soon as he became human -- he was treated like LeBron sans the jersey burning. LeBron left his hometown to chase a ring; Mauer decided to try to win one in Minnesota. He wants to win a championship for his hometown, and there’s something to be said about that.
Mauer might turn out to be Minnesota’s Tony Gwynn
Let’s start with the numbers. Mauer is hitting .320/.401/.461 lifetime with 107 home runs and 662 runs batted in. He is in his 11th season with the Twins and his wins above replacement (WAR) is 45.0. Gwynn played 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres (1982-2001), hit .338/.388/.459 with 135 HR and 1138 RBI. He owns a WAR of 68.8.
Mauer is 31; Gwynn retired at 41. The only year Gwynn hit below .300 was in his rookie season, 1982, and had four of his best seasons between 34 and 37, leading the league in average with video game numbers -- .394 (in the strike-shortened 1994 season), .368, .353, .372 -- and retired with a .324/.384/.461 line, which is about what Mauer hit last season (.324/.404/.476) when he won his fifth Silver Slugger Award.
In order to be Gwynn, however, Mauer has to keep hitting like he did in his 20s, which is no easy task. Even in his injury-riddled 2011 season he hit .287/.360/.368, but time will tell how much those injuries, combined with a concussion last season, will affect him in his 30s.
Some people have called into question how history will view Mauer. If Gwynn is any indication, a congenial player that stays with one team throughout his career will be received well. It wasn’t a large topic of discussion that some of those Padres teams Gwynn was on were undermanned or that he never took his talents north to try and win a World Series with the Dodgers or Angels -- or went to the East Coast for that matter.
It seems that people still value a player that wants to win in a certain location, especially if a player calls that place home.
He might not be worth $23 million anymore, but does it matter?
Mauer’s contract ends during his age 35 season, and he will likely take less money. This is more as a result of his change from a catcher to first baseman than to his production at the plate. Once a prolific offensive threat at the catcher’s position, his lack of power is more scrutinized now that he is at a position where home runs are expected. He still could command a hefty sum if he continues to hit as Gwynn did in his late 30s, but it is unlikely that Mauer will be worth $23 million. The sad truth is that as soon as Mauer sustained that concussion last season, his value dropped, even if he is worth more in Minnesota because of his roots and community outreach in the Twin Cities.
Keep in mind, however, that he was making less than $500,000 during his first three seasons and didn’t make seven figures until his MVP season in 2009. In some ways, by keeping him around, the Twins got good value out of him during the entirety of his career.
The Twins have been criticized for putting Mauer at first base -- as opposed to moving him to third or the outfield -- but Gardenhire counters by saying that it is a position where he is involved in just about every play. “I read somewhere somebody said we’re wasting his athletic ability at first base," said the skipper back in May. “Well, I have a hard time with that statement. The ball goes there as much as it did [when he was] the catcher."
Gardenhire says the Twins have tried Mauer at third, but that move doesn’t make a lot of sense. Trevor Plouffe has improved defensively since being moved from shortstop to the hot corner two years ago. He’s shown he’s capable of hitting for power (24 home runs in 2012) and is hitting more doubles this season, although he has yet to raise his average and still has to prove that he can stay healthy and replicate his power numbers from two years ago. They probably want to play Plouffe out, knowing he is in the prime of his career, could have some value, and was a former first round pick.
Another reason third base doesn’t make much sense is that blue-chip prospect Miguel Sano is projected to play there in the major leagues. This could become a predicament, however, if his arm does not recover fully from Tommy John surgery and he has to be moved to first base, or suffers further injury, creating an additional setback.
“We tried third base way back," Gardenhire says in regard to Mauer. “I got hit in the knees standing behind him, and we cancelled that one when he missed the ball and got me."
Gardenhire says that the team has considered the outfield with Mauer, but it was foreign to him. While Mauer played some other infield positions in Little League and high school -- shortstop, second, third -- he didn’t play much in the outfield. “Some guys profile out there as outfielders, and Joe could probably do that," he said. “He can run, he can probably run the ball down if he had done it his whole life, played the outfield, but I’m venturing to say that’s not something he was accustomed to."
“When I put him in right field, he told me that’s the most afraid he’s ever been on a baseball field," Gardenhire continued, chuckling. “That’s not a good statement. He could do it if you give him more time, but the ball doesn’t come there an awful lot. It comes to first base."
Even the outfield is getting kind of jammed. Byron Buxton is supposed to be the franchise center fielder, Oswaldo Arcia will be expected to play right and Aaron Hicks will play left -- assuming he can get his swing figured out. Chris Parmelee also can be used as a bench player in right.
Mauer is likely to be a first baseman for the rest of his career. The key will be making the adjustment at the plate as well as in the field. After moving out from behind the plate, Mauer has had some trouble tracking pitches because he is no longer catching. “There’s a reason why he’s a great hitter, “says Gardenhire. “He uses the catching part of it as tracking pitches too and seeing the ball, and I thought that was pretty good stuff. That’s not something that you think about too often, so that’s an adjustment for him."
While his numbers are more common among first basemen then they are among catchers, if he continues to hit .300 and drive in runs, even with a dearth of power, he’ll be worth spending money on. In the end, there are no salary caps in baseball, meaning that to an average fan, it really doesn’t matter how much the Twins spend on him. What does matter, however, is that Minnesota spends the money to put a good team around him -- something they haven’t been able to do since the mass exodus of talent in 2011.
Ultimately, the Twins have to put a team around Mauer
Since Mauer joined the Twins in 2004, Mauer has seen plenty of his talented teammates leave the organization. Gone are Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Torii Hunter, J.J. Hardy, Carlos Gomez and many other All-Stars. Not all great players can stay within the organization, but that’s an awful lot of talent that has departed. Morneau’s departure hit Mauer the hardest and, back in 2010 when the M&M Boys were the showcase stars for the new ballpark, nobody thought he was going to end up somewhere else.
Minnesota is unlikely to go out and spend millions of dollars to create a makeshift team around Mauer, especially because that kind of spending doesn’t often work -- even for big-market teams. At their core, the Twins are still the draft-and-develop team they always have been, only now they should be able to keep their stars. For the Twins to win a championship with Mauer, they are going to have to work with what they’ve got.
Alex Meyer and Trevor May are going to have to come up and supplement a rotation that will include Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson. The core bullpen -- Glen Perkins, Casey Fien, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Caleb Thielbar -- has to stay intact and be supplemented. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have to pan out. Aaron Hicks has to turn his career around. Brian Dozier needs to continue to play like a franchise player, and Josmil Pinto has to develop defensively behind the plate while maintaining his swing.
On top of that, the Twins still need a shortstop: Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez or someone from the outside. Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello are wild cards that could find a spot in the lineup if they can produce consistently. And, of course, there will be free agent signings and call-ups.
In the end, the Twins need more superstars like Mauer, so it doesn’t make sense to chase him away.

Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.
A quick glance at the Minnesota Twins bullpen will tell you that they have a social experiment going on in left-center field. It is a hodgepodge of characters that rely on one another to do a high-stress job that comes with little security -- no easy task..

With the exception of closer Glen Perkins and veteran setup man Jared Burton, just about everyone else is making around the league minimum, according to Cot’s Contracts. Two converted starters, Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak, make more -- $2 million and $935,000, respectively -- but everyone except Perkins can become a free agent after next season (Burton has an option in 2015).

Yet, the core group has been together for a while. Perkins, Duensing and Swarzak all came through the system -- Perkins and Swarzak were drafted in 2004, Duensing in 2005 -- while Burton and Fien joined as free agents in 2012. Caleb Thielbar was promoted last season. Those six players comprise the heart of the bullpen.

“It’s one of the best groups I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s been good, too, because we have the same four or five guys for this for the third straight year now," says Burton. “We all root for each other, we all kind of know how to keep each other going if you have a bad day or whatever, we know how to keep each other going."

Every geographical area is covered, except for the East Coast. Perkins and Thielbar are from Minnesota. Duensing is from Nebraska. Fien is a SoCal kid; Burton and Swarzak are southern boys (South Carolina and South Florida, respectively).

Some were drafted high, others passed over: Perkins (first round), Swarzak (second) and Duensing (third) were all drafted early, but Burton (eighth), Thielbar (18th) and Fien (20th) all came from the later rounds.

Fien is emotional on the field; everyone else is even-keeled. Swarzak came right out of high school; the rest went to college. Perkins has a complete understanding of sabermetrics; Burton can’t stand them. And yet, despite all their differences, this group is extremely close. To understand how this works, it’s best to look at each personality individually first before observing the group dynamic as a whole.

Casey Fien: The Emotional One

Fien is the only player that expresses a lot of emotion on the field. Other players may be expressive in the locker room, but for the most part, all of them, by nature, stay even-keeled as much as possible. “Casey’s really the outlier as far as on-the-field emotion," says Perkins. “I wish I could be like that, but it’s just not my personality or my style."

Early on in his career, Fien, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round out of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., was occasionally told by his minor league coaches to calm things down a bit. But he says that his personality has been embraced in Minnesota, and it is part of the reason why he resurrected his career with the Twins after being released by both the Tigers and Houston Astros. “I was a little nervous with it in the beginning," he admits, “but then Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) told me, he goes, ‘It worries me when you don’t show emotion’ because that’s when I know you’re thinking too much. Just let it go, let it loose."

As a result, Fien can be seen pumping his fist violently when he strikes a batter out, leaping in the air when he gets out of an inning or yelling at himself when he gives up a lead.

These emotions are genuine and were not always part of his game, even when they weren’t suppressed. When he was coming up with the Tigers, he often performed mop-up duty when the game was out of hand. That meant he came into games where his team was up 10-1 or down 1-10; rarely did his pitching affect the outcome of the game. “It’s kind of like ehh…well, c’mon," he says, laughing, “but now that I’m pitching in bigger situations, the crowd is more into it. I just fuel off the fans pretty much."

He says that he has always been an emotional guy, but rarely shows it like he does now. He made his major league debut in 2009, but only pitched 11 games in his first two seasons with the Tigers, did not play in the major leagues in 2011 and spent that summer playing in the Mexican league. It wasn’t until he was in a Twins uniform that he regularly started playing in front of significant crowds on a regular basis. “I’ve always been an emotional guy, but I’ve usually never shown it like I do now," he says. “But when you’re in front of 35,000 fans, and you hear them roar, I mean, if you can’t get up for that, then you shouldn’t be playing baseball."

Caleb Thielbar: The Everyman

Thielbar was playing for the St. Paul Saints in 2011. The Milwaukee Brewers had released him two years after drafting him in the 18th round, and the former South Dakota State pitcher appeared to be out of the major leagues. He spent two years in rookie ball and never got past Class A.

Two years later, the Randolph, Minn., native went 19 2/3 innings without allowing a run to begin his career with the Twins.

I covered his ascent from the Saints to the Twins last year. In my reporting, I found him to be unchanged by his instant success. Still to this day, he has remained humble about his play, “This year I haven’t been real impressive with my performance," he says. “I have been giving up a lot of hard hit balls, and right now they’re going at people, but it’s baseball and that’s not going to be the case all the time." This coming from a player that through his first 24.0 inning pitched had only given up nine runs, had a 19:6 strikeout to walk ratio and owns a WHIP of less than 1.00.

He was encouraged to continue pursuing his major league career by Tyler Walker, an eight-year veteran that was playing with the Saints at the time. Thielbar learned his slider from an up-and-coming prospect in Milwaukee named Jake Odorizzi and on May 20, 2013 became the first South Dakota State player to reach the major leagues.

His coach in Brookings, current Sacramento State skipper Reggie Christiansen, said he is the best athlete he ever coached at SDSU. Thielbar came to South Dakota State, a newly-minted Division I program, with the ability to do a 360-degree dunk on the basketball court. That’s impressive for anybody, but especially exceptional for a guy that is a stocky 6’0", 195 pounds.

It’s hard to know exactly how a guy from a relatively unknown school who was drafted in the 18th round and is two years removed from independent baseball has had so much success, but Glen Perkins, a fellow Minnesotan, has a theory. “I think he got healthy," says the closer, who grew up in Stillwater. “Obviously I never saw him throw a pitch until he came to camp with us two years ago, and I know we signed him…and obviously he had a pretty good run in career.

“Obviously the stuff he has now wouldn’t lead you to get released so I’m guessing that his stuff has gotten a lot better, he’s gotten healthier, whatever it might be, but he’s obviously a different pitcher than he was."

A different pitcher, maybe, but that’s about all that has changed. That much is obvious.

Brian Duensing: The Self-Critic

After famously starting against CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees in the 2009 ALDS and going 10-3 with a 2.62 ERA in 2010, there was perhaps some thought that Duensing, a third-round pick out of the University of Nebraska in 2005, would be a starter in Minnesota. His ERA spiked above 5.00 in subsequent seasons, however, and he was sent to the bullpen after 11 starts in 2012 where he was a better fit.

During his tenure as a starter, Duensing was notoriously tough on himself. He never made up excuses in post-game interviews and could be seen crestfallen while sitting in front of his stall in an empty locker room long after the game had ended.

He appears to be better suited, and more content, now that he is a reliever. He throws better from the stretch and has posted a career ERA more than a full run better out of the pen than in the rotation. “There’s times where I’ll have that drive to be a starter and feel like I can still do it," he says, “but there’s days when the bullpen thing is going really well and you think, ‘Things are going well, maybe I should stay in this role.’"

For the time being, it appears that he’ll remain there. He appears better able to handle the ups and downs of baseball as a reliever than he did as a starter, and in a game that relies heavily on a player’s mentality, that can be as important as anything. As far as personality goes, Duensing is closest to Thielbar. “Brian’s just a normal dude," says Perkins. “That’s the weird thing about him is that he just goes out and does his thing and doesn’t really expect much at any point."

Duensing might not have changed much as a person, but he seems to be more at ease now that he’s a reliever -- and that’s a good thing.

Anthony Swarzak: The Goofball

Within a few minutes of speaking with Swarzak, it’s easy to identify him as a little goofier than the rest of his fellow relievers. Although he offers a sincere, firm handshake, he can’t hold back a playful grin. When he’s with his teammates, he tends to keep things loose with a wisecrack or a clever phrase, and his mannerisms alone are enough to turn a downtrodden player’s mood around. But as soon as he gets the call from the bullpen, he becomes as serious as any other player in the game.

“That’s probably why he succeeded in that role," says Perkins, who has known Swarzak since the two players were drafted in 2004, “he can flip a switch, and he pays attention, and then he really zones in when the phone rings and they tell him to get up. He probably knows scouting reports on guys as well as anyone that I played with."

Swarzak’s role is difficult because he can get that call at just about any time during the game. Unlike other players in the bullpen that have a set role and tend to pitch the same amount of time during each outing, Swarzak will pitch in long relief as well as high-leverage situations. “He doesn’t know when he’s going to throw," explains starter Kyle Gibson. “He could throw four innings one day a month in long relief and one inning in short relief. I mean, that’s a tough role to be in. You’ve got to have the right mindset."

“The year he had last year was unbelievable considering he had to be focused from Pitch 1 to Pitch 100, and that’s not easy to do," echoes Perkins. “When you know you’re going to go in a game or have an idea when you’re going into a game, it’s a lot easier to prepare yourself and get yourself in the right mindset to get ready to go."

“The most impressive thing is him being able to bounce back," echoes Guerrier. “He throws two or three one day, he’s available the next day to pitch if need be. That’s the hardest part is going over the hump of saying, ‘Shoot, I threw three innings two days ago. Am I available today?’ and he puts himself in a good spot."

“Be prepared for anything," Swarzak says of his mindset. “Make sure you are warm and your body is in good shape in case the team needs you to pick up three or four innings, and also be ready to come in with your best stuff right out of the gate to get that big double play ball with runners on first and second, first and third, whatever it is."

This is easier said than done, of course, and while Swarzak appears to be settled into his role in the bullpen, he holds out hope to be a starter again one day -- something that differentiates himself from both Duensing and Perkins. “I would love to start," he says emphatically. “I would love the opportunity to start. I’m never going to get rid of the windup with nobody on. It’s just something that I won’t let go.

“I know I can do it, but I also know my value here is to help the team any way I can, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to put on a major league uniform every day."

Wanting to change his role with the team even though he’s mastered an extremely difficult one in the bullpen seems a little bit goofy. But for Swarzak, that might just be fitting.

Michael Tonkin: The New Guy

Tonkin could have easily felt excluded when he joined the Twins bullpen this season. Yes, he was called up last season and yes, he has good stuff, but he is also a quiet, 30th-round pick that few pundits felt would ever make it to the major leagues. Most players selected that late choose to go to college, and those that don’t often spend most of their careers in the minor leagues.

Tonkin had his brother-in-law Jason Kubel on the team during his stint in Minnesota this year, but it was Duensing and Burton who made him feel most at home in the major league clubhouse. “Both of them have been around for a while," says Tonkin. “It’s basically the guys with the most time that I feel comfortable asking questions. Pretty much it’s as simple as that, really."

This is a good sign, of course, because if the veterans in the bullpen were not approachable, younger players would feel less included. Younger players like Tonkin get sent up and down frequently and don’t always feel like they are part of the team because of that, but the ability to approach veteran relievers about anything that is on his mind has made Tonkin feel welcome. “The questions aren’t always about baseball or aren’t always about strategies or facing a batter," he says, “it’s more just what do I want to do right now and where do I want to be?"

“He came up a little bit last year and he was just one of those kids that didn’t say much and just always had a feel of the right and wrong thing," said Burton. “He would ask questions, this and that, and he’d surprise you with something funny, too."

Burton won’t reveal any specifics -- he says they will stay within the clubhouse -- but says Tonkin is one of the goofiest, most random people he has ever met. “He’d be sitting, not saying a word, and then all of sudden he’d say something, and the whole bullpen would be laughing at him."

“He’s a good kid," says Duensing. “He comes in and he keeps his mouth shut, really. If he has questions, he asks, and he works hard and wants to win as much as the rest of us."

Burton and Duensing, as well as Swarzak and Fien, have specifically said that they feel Tonkin has major league ready stuff and plenty of confidence to throw it in the strike zone. He’s also noticeably raw and relies heavily on his fastball, which he likes to use to blow by batters. That strategy works in the minor leagues, where many players are not able to get ahead of his pitches, but has hurt him at the game’s highest level.

“You can’t just live on a fastball up here," said manager Ron Gardenhire before the team sent Tonkin down in mid-May. “He doesn’t throw 98 mph. He throws 94-95 mph, and you’ve got to have a secondary pitch, you have to have something to get them out."

There’s reason to believe Tonkin will be back, however, if he improves his secondary pitches. And if he does get another call up, it is certain that he will be accepted as one of the guys once again. “Tonkin’s been fun to watch," says Swarzak. “He’s got a little ways to go early on here, but he’s got the mindset and the personality to be very, very effective in a major league bullpen."

Matt Guerrier: The Prodigal Son

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Guerrier is the wily old veteran who is extremely familiar with the organization. Only four pitchers have made more appearances in a Twins uniform than Guerrier: Eddie Guardado, Rick Aguilera, Jim Kaat and Joe Nathan. He, along with Kubel and Jason Bartlett, was part of a wave of old faces from the team’s glory years that are ostensibly finishing up their careers in Minnesota.

Guerrier took a little longer to join the team than others because he was coming off of surgery that had taken place in August to repair a flexor mass in his throwing arm, but he also appears to have the most staying power. Instead of being the setup man, as he was before he left in 2010, he has embraced being more of a utility guy. “I definitely feel like I’m kind of an interchangeable piece down there," he says. “I can go a couple innings if I have to and can fill in for guys if somebody needs a day off."

It can’t be ignored that he is also sort of a prodigal son. The Clevelander was drafted by the White Sox and debuted with Minnesota in 2004 at age 25, but left for Southern California to join the Los Angeles Dodgers and had a brief stint with the Cubs before returning to Minnesota this season. He somehow managed to play for the Twins during most of their peak years while watching the team self-destruct from the West Coast.

Yet, despite missing out on Mauer and Justin Morneau’s injury-plagued 2011, the Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment and the implosion of the pitching rotation that resulted in three straight 90-loss seasons immediately after he left, he got a warm welcome in the Twins’ clubhouse as the team makes an attempt to get above .500 this season.

“It has to do with the guys," he says. “Guys like Duensing and Burton are really easy to get along with and Perk’s witty and fun to be around.

“That makes it easier when the veterans aren’t hard-nosed tough guys and not worried about someone taking their job or something. They embrace it with another guy coming in and you gotta make them feel comfortable so they can go out there and win some games for us."

Jared Burton: The Old School Guy

Ask any reliever in the Twins’ clubhouse and they will tell you that, without a doubt, Perkins and Burton are the leaders of the bullpen. “Perkins obviously has that closer, leader role aspect going and Burton is more like the voice of the bullpen," says Duensing. “We feed off of each other, and we’ll talk about things -- how we want things to go, get things done or whatever, and Burton is the kind of guy that will speak his mind about it for us as a whole."

“They’re the key to our success last year and [show] how to be a professional, how to go about your job and what the bullpen asks of you," adds Fien, who took over Burton’s role as the eighth inning setup man this season. “They just tell you and teach you how to prepare and how to get people out in the big leagues."

The funny thing is that Perkins and Burton couldn’t be more different. Perkins is a first-rounder that came up a starter; Burton is an eighth-rounder that has pitched in relief since A-ball. Perkins is witty and gregarious; Burton is relaxed and soft-spoken. Perkins loves advanced stats; Burton loathes them.

“I don’t care anything about that," he says, emphatically, when asked about sabermetrics. “I’m a traditional guy, and what happens on the field is sacred to me. All of that stuff, yes, it’s a way for people to assess players, assess the game, but I don’t even want to talk about it."

Burton says this with a thick southern drawl. He’s a Carolina guy who went from an eighth-rounder out of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., to Lights-Out Levi -- a nod to his given name -- at the major league level with the Cincinnati Reds before joining Minnesota. He’s a man who will offer a firm handshake, look you directly in the eye and ask your name twice to ensure he has it right. He also is not one to get uptight about things.

“There’s not a lot of high-strung guys that play this game," he says, smiling. “There are a few, but most guys have a laid back side to them. It’s just kind of the vibe of this game."

The one thing that will make him raise his voice in disdain is somebody who tries to take humanity out of the game. Suddenly his drawl is a little less pronounced and his vowels start rolling off the tongue a little quicker than usual.

“It don’t mean anything," he says of sabermetrics. “It don’t have anything to do with what’s inside of a guy when he’s in a tough situation, back against the wall. It has no idea how to rate that player. The human element is pretty irrelevant and most of those guys take a number and plug it in with what they think’s going to happen and it has nothing to do with whether somebody’s locked in for a couple days or if they’re slumping."

While some players may fall back on advanced statistics, Burton says that his success comes as a result of how much effort he puts into preparing for a game. “Confidence is huge in this game for any offense, defense, pitching, whatever, but I always feel like if I feel prepared, then I’m going to be confident," he says, adding that he watches video and has become familiar with most of the established major league hitters by now. “I just glance at the hitters and see what their natural swing is, and then it’s just down to executing pitches.

“In the pitcher’s meetings, you could say, ‘This guy hits fastballs in really well,’ but if your strength is throwing sinkers in, then I’m going to bet that I’m going to execute more than him so you’ve just got to stay with your stuff more times than not and be confident in it.

“And if his strength is your strength, then you’re gonna go, ‘Well, I’m better than you are, so here it is.’"

Simple as that.

Glen Perkins: The Sabermetrician

Just because Perkins knows FIP, BABIP and WHIP, doesn’t mean that he fails to acknowledge the human side of the game. “There’s multiple ways to look at it," he says. “Being someone that understands most or all of the numbers and also someone that’s in this clubhouse and on that mound and in that bullpen, I know there’s a human element."

The thing about Perkins is he doesn’t seem like a guy that would delve into advanced statistics: He once forgot to zip his fly during an outing, bought a round of beers for some hard-core fans during a rain delay and picked a fight with Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics to get his team fired up. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was some regular old guy from Stillwater that spends his nights sipping on a Lift Bridge seasonal at Rafters or The Freight House.

“Perk is Perk," says Fien.

The bottom line is that a person who is as human as Perkins is -- seriously, he left his zipper down in front of 40,000 people -- can’t ignore that element of the game when it comes to his preparation. “The hard-core sabermetricians want to throw that out because there’s no way to quantify it and they feel that everything should be quantified," he says. “And it can’t be; it’s not possible."

The stat that Perkins uses most is Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, which measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average. “I have a 3.00 ERA, I have a FIP that’s 1.30," he says. “I know that the longer I keep doing what I’ve been doing so far for my first 22 innings this season, that the more innings I get, the closer my ERA is going to be to my FIP."

“The four hits against Boston," he adds, referencing a blown save against the Red Sox on May 15, “I know that those hits are going to happen and that they’re going to find holes and then things like the other night happen, and when I give up a leadoff triple and three balls in play get hit to fielders -- it evens out and your batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is going to be what it is."

It ultimately comes down to a search for confidence. For Burton, it is derived from his preparation; for Perkins it is in advanced metrics, although he does rely heavily on a unique routine to get ready for his outings.

Instead of staying in the bullpen, he will sit in the clubhouse for the first five or six innings and then join the rest of the relievers in the seventh. He knows that he won’t have to pitch until the ninth inning and likes to watch the hitters up close on the clubhouse monitors. At that point he could care less what an opposing hitter has done in the last few days, he’s concerned about how that guy is playing on that particular day. “There’s days where guys are on and days when guys are off and you can see that on TV that day," he says. “I want to know if a guy’s bat is slow one day because maybe he went out the night before and he’s dragging a little bit."

That’s the balance Perkins has struck: He knows when the stats matter and when they don’t. Stats will tell you if your ERA is too high or too low and what a player has done over a course of time, but when it comes down to getting three outs with your team ahead by less than four runs, you’ve just gotta know how well each batter is doing that day. “I want to see what a guy did that day, which is kind of opposite of what sabermetric thinking would be," he says. “It’s a small sample size, but that’s all that really matters to me (that day)."

Perhaps it takes a man who leaves his fly open to bring the sabermetricians and old school baseball thinkers together. At the very least, the Society for American Baseball Research should add another acronym to their collection, one specifically designed for Mr. Perkins: XYZ.

Chemistry is built upon shared burdens

The Twins bullpen has somehow made this work. Despite their different personalities, backgrounds and approaches to the game, there is a core group in Minnesota that has found a way to get the job done -- even when the rest of the team has been performing poorly. Some of it is finding their roles -- Perkins as the closer, Fien stepping in for Burton as the setup man, Swarzak as the long reliever, et cetera -- and some of it is just the nature of sitting around with the same group of guys for hours on end, especially when many of those guys played in the minors together. But some of it is just the way it is.

“I mean, I think it’s just how it works," says Perkins. “You want to do well, and when I was throwing earlier in games, when I was setting up and coming in with guys on base, you almost want to try harder in those situations to pick up the guy behind you and make sure that his runs don’t score.

“Part of it is you go in in a certain situation, and the next day you’re back down in the pen and you want to look the guy in the eye and know that you got him and that all reciprocates."

The fact that most of the guys in the bullpen have specific roles is big, according to many of the relievers. In situations where the closer and setup man, or even the long reliever, is not doing his job and everyone is competing to replace him, there can be conflict among the members of the bullpen that can lead to an overall drop in performance. “No one feels like they are stepping on each other’s toes or that they are competing with the next guy or anything like that," says Duensing. “We’re all out there for the same reason and that’s to pick up the starters and give our team a chance to win."

That means that when Fien was able to take over Burton’s job, it was huge that he still respected him as a leader. It also is important that Fien and Burton are both capable of doing Perkins’ job if he’s had multiple outings in a row or gotten injured. And because Duensing has experience as a starter, he can fill in for Swarzak if he’s pitched a lot of innings in a row over the course of a week.

What it comes down to, though, is that they all face the same burdens. They all get too much work during one month and then not enough the next. They all have to come in at odd times with men on base or in high-pressure situations. They all get no attention when they do their job, but become scapegoated when they give up even as many as one or two runs during a game.

“You approach the game the same way if you’re in the bullpen," says Burton. “You’re down there, you sit down there, you watch the game, you shoot the s*** for six, seven, eight innings every night together. Every guy we’ve had here we haven’t had any problems with whatsoever. Any young guy that comes here, they just immediately fit right in."

In some ways, it may be the differences in personalities that ultimately allow all the relievers to develop working relationships. “That’s kind of why it works," offers Guerrier. “If everybody was cut from the same mold, then we’d probably clash a little bit."

Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.

We’re at a point in the season where there’s a lot of baseball left: Why not the Twins?
I’ve read there were a handful of clubs that were chasing Kendrys; we were ahead of many of those clubs in the standings.
-- General manager Terry Ryan at the Morales signing press conference (6/8/14)

The Minnesota Twins signed Kendrys Morales a day after beating the Houston Astros 8-0 and improving their record to 29-31. Ryan felt this was a move that would improve the team’s anemic offense while also infusing a rush of confidence to the clubhouse.

Later that day, Minnesota would get routed by Houston, 14-5, and there were mixed feelings in the clubhouse. Everyone was down because the team had just lost a series to a rebuilding Astros club, but there was still a feeling of excitement in the clubhouse because of the new addition. “That does a lot just for the guys in here for how they reward our play so far," said closer Glen Perkins. “We have a similar record to what we had last year, but we think we’re a lot better team, and making moves like that, taking chances on guys and making us better goes a long way here for guys’ confidence and that we’re all on the same page here."

The Twins never reached .500 after signing Morales. In fact, they suffered two separate five-game losing streaks and stood at 44-50 entering the All-Star Break. Morales, a designated hitter and first baseman, entered the break hitting .229/.254/.582, worse numbers than his rookie year and far lower than his .277/.329/.471 career line. “Since I last talked you about that subject," said Ryan, nearly a month later, in regards to whether the Twins would be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, “we have gone the wrong way. We’ve lost too many games, and now we’re in a tough spot. Do you know whose shoulders that falls on?

“Mine."

That was on July 6, a day before Minnesota went on a seven-game road trip to Seattle and Colorado. Before the road trip, the Twins appeared to be in fire sale mode, but after going 5-2 against the Mariners and Rockies, the dynamic shifted. “We knew coming into this whole road trip, it was not necessarily make-or-break, but it was a huge test of what we’re going to do after the break, whether buy or sell, all that stuff," second baseman Brian Dozier told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press. “I want to try to do everything to contend. In all our opinions, we think we’re good enough."
The Twins need to go for broke right now. There is no shame in aiming for the playoffs and ending up with a 75-win record. Shoot for the moon, land among the stars, as the say. It would be an improvement, but more importantly it tells you a lot about how much team management considers the fans in their decision. The bottom line is: This is a no brainer. The Twins need try and contend for a playoff spot because a) they don’t have much to sell, and b) a fire sale creates a culture of losing, which is already forming at Target Field.
The time to win is now.

Lack of tradable assets
The Twins basically have four trading chips: Morales, pitcher Kevin Correia, left fielder Josh Willingham and catcher Kurt Suzuki. Only one of those guys would get a decent return: Suzuki. Morales, who was signed to a prorated $8 million contract, will be sold for cents to the dollar right now. Correia was an All-Star in 2011, but has never pitched 200 innings in a season and owns a career 4.50 ERA. Willingham hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 home runs and 110 RBI in 2012, the first year of his 3-year, $21 million contract -- at the time, the biggest free agent contract in Twins history -- but the 35 year old has become inconsistent and isn’t hitting much better than his .208/.342/.368 line last season.
Suzuki earned his first All-Star appearance this season after a strong first half (.309/.365/.396) but had suffered from wear and tear in his previous three seasons, batting only .230 while battling wrist issues and other ailments as a member of the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals. Not only will teams expect his production to regress over time, but he’s valuable to the Twins right now. Without Suzuki, the team is relying on career minor leaguer Eric Fryer and outfielder/catcher Chris Herrmann behind the plate. Josmil Pinto may take over at some point, but right now his defense needs a lot of work. A 2- or 3-year extension should be in order for Suzuki, 30, this offseason.
If the Twins are going to trade Morales, Correia or Willingham, it would be to create space on the field for their young players. Kennys Vargas is a 23 year old that is hitting .291/.364/.480 with 15 home runs at Double-A New Britain before the break. Like Morales, he is a designated hitter that can make spot starts at first base and has shown enough to get a shot in the majors sooner than later. Correia could be moved for top pitching prospects Alex Meyer or Trevor May, who are the future of the Twins rotation. By moving Willingham, Minnesota allows Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia and perhaps Chris Colabello to audition for a spot on the major league roster next season.
In this case, the Twins aren’t selling in hopes of a big return -- none of those four players, even Suzuki, would merit a Top 100 prospect -- but rather to create room for their younger players to get major league experience or compete for a spot on next year’s roster. By moving Morales, Correia and Willingham, the focus would be on selling off spare parts, not trying to add new ones.
Reversing a culture of losing
Everyone was shocked when the Twins lost 99 games in 2011. ESPN and Sports Illustrated had Minnesota winning the AL Central again, and nobody could have predicted that the M&M Boys -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau -- would suffer from significant injuries that hampered their production that season or that the rotation -- Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker -- would have imploded.
In 2012 and 2013, poor management decisions from years past haunted the team. The lopsided J.J. Hardy trade and failed Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment left the Twins without a major league caliber shortstop. Delmon Young’s attitude made fans wonder why the team traded away Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for him when there was a need for quality pitching and a plug at short. And Aaron Hicks was not ready to make the leap from Double-A when Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded away.
As a result, the Twins, once a model small-market team that had won six division titles from 2002-2010, whose No. 1 concern was how they would beat the New York Yankees in a playoff series, suddenly had other issues to deal with. After christening Target Field with a 94-win season in 2010, the team had become cellar dwellers in Target Field. One losing season is an anomaly. Two is the start of a pattern. Three becomes a trend.
Fans went from wondering why Ron Gardenhire wasn’t annually given the Manager of the Year award -- he was a runner-up for five years before winning it in 2010 -- to wondering why he had a job. He joined Tom Kelly, the man who brought two World Series to the Twin Cities, in the 1000-win club in April of this year, but he will also hit 1000 losses this season. He would have been left hanging at 998 wins last year if he had not been offered a two-year extension shortly after the 2013 season concluded.
Gardenhire, who only had one losing season from 2002-2010, suddenly is faced with the realistic possibility of enduring four straight.
This is the year to establish a winning culture again. Even though it hasn’t worked out perfectly, ownership made an effort by signing Morales, and Ryan did so by speaking his infamous words: “Why not the Twins?" There is no reason to burn it down and wait for next year. Yes, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are supposedly on the way. So are Meyer and May. But none of those players will succeed when introduced to a losing culture.
Trading away players at the deadline can be an effort to lay down the foundation for a winning team years down the road, but retaining players to make a playoff push -- even if it proves fruitless in the end -- can have the same effect in the right circumstances. Right now, the Twins have to approach the second half of the season like they did all those years when they came out of nowhere to force Game 163: playoffs or bust.

Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.
Kurt Suzuki replaced Joe Mauer’s production this season. Just let that sink in.
For how much Minnesotans complain about their erstwhile hometown hero, Mauer’s production has been off the charts since he joined the Twins in 2004. His 2009 numbers (.365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI) will be difficult to replicate, even for him, but what made them even more impressive was he did that while catching.

His days of chasing .400 seem far away, but before his career-altering concussion the former Cretin-Derham Hall star was hitting .324/.404/.476, good enough for his fourth Silver Slugger Award. His head injury ultimately removed him from behind the plate, and the Twins, having traded Wilson Ramos in an ill-fated transaction years earlier, needed somebody to fill in at catcher while Josmil Pinto developed.

Suzuki was that man.

The longtime Oakland A’s backstop was hardly unknown. He was a decent hitter and solid defensive player in the South Bay from 2007-11, but his numbers dropped as he split time with Oakland and the Washington Nationals in 2012 and 2013. After topping out as a .275 hitter in 2008 and 2009, his second and third years in the league, Suzuki hit .230 in the last three years before joining Minnesota.
The common thought was that he was worn down from frequent, aggressive play. In Oakland he was known to play upwards of 130 games a year. In 2008 and 2009 he played 148 and 147 games, respectively, but was held to 94 games last season. The 1-year, $2.75 million contract he received from the Twins hardly suggests they thought he was going to be the offensive force he became this season, but a combination of need, fit and the fact that it was a contract year created a perfect formula for Suzuki in Minnesota.
While the Hawaiian probably was not thrilled about playing in the cold early in the year, he instantly felt comfortable in the Twins’ clubhouse and was well received among the pitching staff and position players. “Those catchers, man, those catchers have those personalities where they kind of click with the pitching staff and the hitters," says reliever Casey Fien. “I mean, we’re kind of segregated, but with the catchers, they’re the neutral party so they need to be with everybody. Kurt has that personality of being able to click with everybody and having something in common."
The question is: How does he do it? How is he having his best year at age 30? How did he fit in with a team of people that he, for the most part, didn’t know?
And, ultimately: Will he stay?
Replacing Joe Mauer
Six-time All-Star; three-time batting champion; three-time Gold Glove Award winner; and
American League MVP.
Mauer received all those awards while catching for the Twins. He was the anomaly: the backstop that could hit. He was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Paul Molitor and Cal Ripken Jr. said that he had the best swing they had ever seen. And on top of that, he averaged more than 20 points per game as a guard at Cretin and was offered a football scholarship at Florida State University to play under Bobby Bowden.
He had a fall from grace in 2011, of course, when he suffered from bi-lateral leg weakness, but came back and hit well above .300 in 2012 and 2013. Had it not been for his concussion, Mauer still would be calling games and Suzuki probably would have signed with another team.
Suzuki doesn’t deny it: He knew that he would be compared with Mauer the day he signed with Minnesota. “I believe it, and rightfully so," he says. “I’ve got so much respect for Joe. I played against him when I was with Oakland and last year with Washington a little bit. That guy goes out, he wins batting titles, he’s an MVP while taking a beating back there, and that’s impressive.
“He’s definitely one of the guys that I respect probably most in this league. And to be able to be on his team now, I’ll take comparisons all day long if I get to suit up with Joe."
“I’m not going to get caught up comparing the two players," says Jared Burton, who played with Suzuki in Oakland’s farm system, “but he’s done better than anybody could have expected. I knew he would be utilized here, especially with the move we made with Joe. It’s been perfect. He slid right in and became a great catcher for us."
A perfect fit
Burton lobbied hard among the players to get Suzuki to join the team. He had played with him in Oakland’s minor league system in 2005 and 2006 and developed a strong relationship with him before being selected by the Reds organization in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft in 2007. “Whenever we played the A’s last year, Burton always talked about how Kurt was an awesome guy, somebody he would love to throw to," says Fien. “We heard a lot of good things about him through Burt, and Burt doesn’t throw around comments like that very often."
“I can’t imagine there being a better fit for him, personality-wise, than this team," says Burton. “When we signed him this offseason, I was really happy for this organization and happy for him because I knew he would fit right in."
The Twins knew what they were getting when they signed Suzuki. Gardenhire says that he talked to other teams and knew he was an asset in the locker room as well as out of it. Twins general manager Terry Ryan echoed that same sentiment about the catcher, saying he had a track record and was a targeted player, even if the team had been aiming at A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the offseason as well. “He’s had a pretty good career already," says Ryan of Suzuki, “even before coming here. I’m glad we have him; he’s done a nice job here. He’s good in the clubhouse, he’s good in the community, he’s produced -- I don’t know what else I can tell you."
Suzuki says that having Burton in the locker room helped right away, even if he is outgoing and personable by nature. “Definitely knowing some guys makes it comfortable," he says. “Having played with Burty for a few years with Oakland definitely helped."
Instead of addressing him as Jared, Suzuki calls him Lights Out Levi, which is derived from Burton’s given name. “Everybody has heard me call him Levi, and I don’t know if anybody would call him that," says Suzuki, laughing. “They might have, but I’ve always called him Levi since we played together in A-ball."
“I knew his name was Levi," says Fien, a smirk developing across his face when asked about the moniker. “Actually, I heard [the nickname] this last road trip. Me and my wife were talking to him and my wife loves his name, Levi, so then he started talking nicknames, and so I kinda knew."
Stockton resident Bill Richardson, a local super fan of Oakland’s High-A farm team, gave Burton the name. “He would travel on the road sometimes, and then all of a sudden you’d just hear him yelling and you’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s there.’" says Burton, shaking his head. “I took over the closer role like halfway through the season that year and pitched really well and he would yell, ‘Lights Out Levi!’ and Kurt kind of took it, and that’s what he’d call me that year."
Ryan says that despite their relationship and the fact that Burton was lobbying among the players to sign Suzuki, he did not reach out to his reliever in his evaluation of the catcher. “I don’t talk to players too often about that because it could be one guy’s favorite," he says, “and it could be the other guy’s enemy."
In this case, that doesn’t look like it would be a problem. Everyone seems to like Suzuki.
A ‘red-ass’
Suzuki grew up in Hawaii, loves to surf and listens to reggae. Put him on the diamond, however, and he gets all fired up. “He’s a red-ass," says Gardenhire. “You can print that."
The same guy that leads pitcher’s meetings with the composure of a CEO and offers young hurlers the calming presence of a shrink also has the incendiary qualities of his manager. “He’s got a little fire in him, and that’s okay, I like that part of it too," continues Gardenhire. “He gets frustrated when we give up runs, and he’s got a little bit of that."
Gibson remembers a moment when he walked a guy on a 3-2 breaking ball earlier this year. He was about to get out of the inning, but suddenly found himself in a jam. As Suzuki walked out to the mound, Gibson knew what was coming. “I can’t say every word he said," offers Gibson, laughing, “but he comes out and said, ‘That was a stupid pitch, I let you get away with it, and don’t do it again! Let’s get this guy out.’"
Safe to say, Gibson got the next guy out.
“He’s not afraid to do that," continues Gibson. “He takes pride in what he’s doing. If I walk a guy or give up a run, he kind of takes it personally."
“He yells at himself in the dugout," says Gardenhire, chuckling. “He takes a lot of pride in not giving up runs."
“I hate losing, and I hate failing," admits Suzuki, “I’m pretty intense, but between the lines I try to be laid back. There’s certain times to be the ass and certain times to be calm, but I’m just competitive by nature, and I definitely hate losing."
Burton believes that Suzuki developed that attitude as a walk-on at Cal State Fullerton, one of the best college baseball programs in the country. “He’s just got that mentality that he’s never going to be satisfied," says Burton. “You take a guy that walked on at a program like Cal State Fullerton and turned himself into a second rounder, that’s pretty impressive. That lets you know what he’s all about."
“I’ve always had to be that guy that had to prove himself. Nothing was really given to me," says Suzuki. “Having to walk on at Fullerton, my mindset is always go out there and not just prove people wrong, but prove to myself that I can do it and be successful."
“I had to go out there and earn it, and I believe that’s how everything should be," he adds. “You should have to earn everything you’ve got."
A natural leader
Suzuki didn’t just develop an attitude at Fullerton; he also procured a strong work ethic. He played under three coaches there that ended up being head coaches at other programs shortly after he left. George Horton, who was the head coach at Fullerton from 1996-2007, is currently the head coach at the University of Oregon. Dave Serrano, who took over for him, is currently the head coach at Tennessee. And Rick Vanderhook, who is the current Fullerton coach, was an assistant while Suzuki was there.
“That’s just what kind of program you’ve got when you’ve got three leaders like that that you get ready to play for," he says. “I feel very fortunate for that, and it definitely helped lead me to where I am today."
“He still does the same things (he did at Fullerton), still prepares as much as anybody," says Burton. “He’s watching video at the beginning of each series; he’s leading the pitcher’s meetings because he knows exactly what these guys do."˙
“He’s got that assertive personality," says Gibson. “He’s not afraid to say something, step up and tell you when you’re wrong and admit when he’s wrong. But he knows what he’s talking about a lot of the time."
“He’s our leader," says Fien, emphatically. “He’s the guy everybody goes to if we have a problem. He’s also in with the coaches; the coaches love him here."
“He’s one of the chemistry guys," echoes Gardenhire, “but also a very good baseball player."
Here’s the crazy thing: Had the Twins got Pierzynski, ostensibly their first choice, they would have gotten a clubhouse cancer -- Pierzynski signed with the Boston Red Sox and was recently designated for assignment. With Suzuki, they got an instant leader.
What makes Suzuki special is that he offers both the comfort of a laid-back Hawaiian dude, and the jolt of reality from somebody that has that assertive personality and will get in your face. He’s relatable to the player that needs to calm down after a bad outing as well as the guy that needs to be told he’s underperforming. He’s also a missing link: guys like Mauer and Phil Hughes tend to lead by example, Trevor Plouffe has a fun, playful energy, Brian Dozier is cheerful and conversational and Josh Willingham just says it as it is. But nobody was the igniter until Suzuki showed up.
“There’s guys that lead by example. He leads by example well, but he’s also got that fireball personality that allows him to speak up well," says Gibson. “It just depends on the team you have. I mean, Joe’s always been the lead-by-example guy: You rarely see him get fired up or allow his emotions to take the best of him. You need guys like both of them, so it works out really good."
It’s not all personality, of course. For many players it is his preparation. Suzuki knows all the hitters, the strengths and weaknesses of his pitching staff and the repertoire of the starting pitcher he will face that day. It all goes back to his college days: He was the un-recruited high schooler that had to walk on to his college team and go the extra mile to stay on it. He has a drive to be one step ahead of everybody mentally in order to let his natural talents and assertive attitude manifest itself.
“That’s what you need with a guy behind the plate," says Burton. “You’re unsure about what to throw to a guy, then you’re going to be confident throwing whatever he puts down."
A ‘suggestion box’
Fien says that building a repertoire with Suzuki wasn’t difficult, and after a few outings, the two had established a sublime connection -- something that is common among all the pitchers and Suzuki. “A couple games is all you need to see what is working for me to get people out and what he sees," says Fien, “and once we’re on the same page, I’ll tell him what I want to do."
He pauses. “But sometimes he has a different idea."
During one of his first outings with Suzuki, Fien said that he wanted to go fastball in. Fien does not throw particularly hard, but locates the ball well and tends to use his fastball in and out to throw hitters off balance, while mixing in a steady diet of cutters to change speeds and create movement on the ball. At 30, he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do on the mound, but that day Suzuki walked up to the mound and had a different plan in mind.
“I said I want to go fastball in and he goes, ‘No, we’re not going to go fastball in,’" says Fien, “and I go ‘Alright, let’s go fastball away.’" Unhappy with the selection, Suzuki told him, “No, let’s not go fastball away, let’s throw a cutter back door."
“And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s go cutter back door,’" Fien says, laughing as he recalled the story. “He knows the hitters, he knows what he wants, and I don’t know why he didn’t just come out and say it."
Among the staff, almost everybody says they have shaken Suzuki off at least once, but because the meetings are so thorough and he knows the pitchers so well, there’s often no reason to disagree with him. “He definitely gives you the freedom to shake," says Gibson. “The more I throw to him, I wouldn’t say I ever lacked confidence in him because from the get-go, you know his history, you know how long he’s been in the league and the job he’s done with other staffs, so he just makes you feel comfortable and allows you to throw any pitch with conviction."
“He’s not really one of those guys (that you can’t shake)," says Burton. “He knows as a bullpen guy, more often than not we’ll come in and face a guy one time [and] we’ll go with our strength. He may put something down that may suggest something he’s seen in the video room, but we want to go with something else, and we can both live with that."
“Listen, I’m a suggestion box, and if a guy shakes me off and he feels 100 percent convicted in throwing that pitch, throw it," says Suzuki, his fiery attitude slowly emerging as he speaks. “Obviously if he doesn’t throw it at the right spot, we’re going to have a little talk about it."
A little talk, mind you, that typically involves high decibels and a few choice words.
“I’m a suggestion box," he says, “with a strong suggestion."
Living on the edge
On July 1, while chasing a pop up in foul territory in a game against the Kansas City Royals, Suzuki ran into a pole near the dugout at full speed. His foot slid into a hole behind the pole and he took the brunt of the impact in the chest. This was only a few days after he was stunned for a few minutes by a foul-tip to the same region and another one that hit his facemask.
“He’s nuts," said Gardenhire after the game. He paused for a few seconds, put his face down and laughed to himself in front of all the cameras. “I don’t know what he’s -- he’s a psycho man running through that wall," he continued. “Everyone was saying, ‘No. No. No.’ And he just kept running, and then he said, ‘That really hurt.’"
Everyone laughed at that comment. “It sure looked like it did," concluded the manager. “Tough guy, you know."
Suzuki’s toughness appeared to have caught up with him in recent years, however. He’s a guy that likes to play every day, and wrist issues, as well as general wear and tear, had caused his production to drop in his last few seasons with Oakland and Washington.
When asked about why Suzuki’s production has increased this season, Twins general manager Terry Ryan immediately pointed to his health.
“Well, he’s 100 percent," Ryan said. “I know he had some wrist issues last year. But he’s been good since the first day, he’s really solidified some of that behind the plate, allowed us to pick and choose when we wanted to play Pinto and now bringing [Eric] Fryer -- he’s got the durability and stamina, he can play a lot so you don’t have to worry too much about that position."
The key for Suzuki, then, is to balance being a wild man and being an everyday player.
What’s next?
There are a lot of questions surrounding Suzuki in the second half of the season: Will he stay, or will the Twins trade him? Can he keep up his production after taking a beating night-in and night-out? Minnesota will also have to weigh the risks of re-signing a 30-year-old catcher based off of one good season who may want a long-term contract.
Those concerns can wait until later, however. For right now, let’s just focus on this: The Twins made a savvy pickup in the offseason, and Suzuki is a perfect fit in Minnesota.

Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.
The Minnesota Twins entered the second half of the season on a 10-game homestand with hopes that they could keep their team together and compete for a Wild Card spot in the American Leagueafter going 5-2 on the road before the All-Star Break.
Quotes are edited for brevity and clarity..

Game 1: Tampa Bay 6, Minnesota 2

Pregame

Manager Ron Gardenhire: We’re chasing, and it’s pretty easy to see: we can go one way or another. We need to pick up from where we left off, we had a nice road trip, but still we’re under .500 in the first half of the season. So we’ve got to work our way to .500 and go from there, and it starts right here at home.

We got a nice 10-game homestand inside our division for seven of them, and that’s where it all starts. We’ve gotta start playing better at home and hopefully win on this homestand, and then go from there.

General Manager Terry Ryan: It’s pivotal. We’re already six games below .500 -- that’s a long way to .500 at this juncture of the season. I would say this is an important time.

It isn’t going to make a season, but it certainly is going to affect the trade deadline.

We can’t afford to keep dropping back. We’re at a point now where there’s a lot of ground to be made up, and we’ve got to start making up some ground here. We can’t keep going back.

Gardenhire: The players are talking about trying to keep this thing together. That’s a normal conversation after the All-Star Break for every team. They don’t want to lose their teammates, and they all know it goes to how we play on the field, and that’s the bottom line. Whether we’ve done good enough to make that happen or not, it’s only upstairs.

Yes, it’s great to want to go out and keep everyone here, they’re all good buddies and everything, but we’ve got to go out and win baseball games, and whatever it takes to get this organization in the right shape, in the right place, that’s what’s going to happen.

All we can do is worry about going and playing. We’ve got to go play; we’ve got to go win baseball games. Normally it takes care of a lot of stuff if you just keep winning.

Ryan: I’m glad to hear that they’re saying that, that’s good, because they like what we’ve got in terms of talent, they think we’re heading in the right direction, it sounds like. But it’s not like it’s the front office [shakes hand high] and the players [shakes hand low] -- we’re in this together. We want to do what’s right. We all would like to be better, and we’d all like to have a better record, and we’d all like to be closer to the playoff teams, but we’re not right now, and we have to be if we expect to hold the group together.

Hopefully we do play well in the next 10 games and maybe string together (some wins). We did a nice job prior to the break. We had a nice little run, and we had a good road trip.
Trevor Plouffe’s two-run home run was all the offense Minnesota would get that night. Tampa Bay struck early with a three-run third and Gibson went 6 1/3 innings but gave up six runs for the second time in three starts.

Postgame

Gardenhire: [Gibson] hung in there. He had a couple big innings.

The first three runs, the tapper back to the mound, which is probably a double play if he doesn’t tip it, but instincts tell you to try and catch the ball. That ball was probably going to Doze [second baseman Brian Dozier] for a double play.

And then he gets a ball up to Longoria off the wall, and there’s your first three points.

And then Zobrist, he got behind him and threw a 2-1 slider and then tried to throw a fastball away, but he threw it right down the middle. And that’s a situation where he’s got a base open. He just misfired one and the guy hit it in the seats, and that’s his five runs, really.

He hung in there, but two big innings got him.

Starting pitcher Kyle Gibson: Really I got beat by three, four pitches tonight.

If I field my position there in the third inning, we get a double play. And it turns out if I let the ball go, Dozier’s right there up the middle on the shift, it’s a double play and defense gets me out of the inning. And then I leave a 2-0 fastball down the middle to Longoria. And then I ended up doing the same
thing to Zobrist later on: 3-1, good hitter, can’t leave a pitch right down the middle in that situation.

Game 2: Tampa Bay 5, Minnesota 1

Pregame

Ryan: Last night was disappointing. We only had six hits. We didn’t have good damage control; they put up the crooked number. It just was not a good game for us to start the second [half] right after the break.

We have got to do a better job -- we just did not put many good at-bats together last night. Certainly Kyle had the guy driving the ball off the wall, and it just doesn’t work. So it gets right back to execution and taking advantage of situations and damage control and all that kind of stuff, and that’s what I look for.

Last night wasn’t good. It never seemed like we were in that game. We need to do better than that.

Gardenhire: The names are here (for the upcoming game). Hughesy had a great first half for us and is throwing well, and we all know Mr. Price (starting pitcher David Price). If they pitch up to their capabilities, it could be a tough night for the hitters. Hopefully we’ll find a way to scratch something off of him and Hughesy will give us a good opportunity.
We all know that you don’t want to give up too many runs early against a guy like [Price] because he can get a lead and run. But going in there, we’ve seen him before, and if you’re competitive, you like this sort of thing. You like to face the good pitchers, just not too many of them in a row, and he’s a good one.
We’ll see who executes. That’s what it comes down to tonight: If he executes his pitches, he’s really tough.
Hughes gave up five runs in seven innings, including three in the second. Price only gave up four hits, and no runs, in eight.
Postgame
Gardenhire: Three points early and we all know that guy pitching, we want to stay even with that guy; you don’t want to give him runs, and you saw what he can do. Price was unbelievable. He had great stuff tonight with all of his pitches, and he pretty much dominated us.
Hughesy gave up three, but actually hung in there pretty good and gave us an opportunity to get back into the game; we just weren’t able to do it. He didn’t have much, it looked like, early in the game, but he found a way to get through some innings for us, which is very important. And he gave us an opportunity to get back in there, but of course Price didn’t give us much of a chance.
Starting pitcher Phil Hughes: I battled as best I could.
I didn’t really have much to work with tonight and kinda had to make some pitches in some sequences in situations where I normally wouldn’t have done that because I knew right off the bat that I didn’t have much. Three-run second, you put yourself in a hole against one of the league’s best, so that was obviously the difference.
It’s tough. You come into a series after the break, and you want to get off on the right foot and a couple nights in a row where our starters didn’t do the job.
Third baseman Trevor Plouffe: It’s two games, man. It’s two games against two tough pitchers. There’s nothing that we’re going to do different, we’re going to work as hard as we’ve been working, and just try to get more guys on and get those hits with runners in scoring position, good timely hitting. That’s all you can do.
It’s a long season, and we’ll come back and win this next game and then go into the next series against Cleveland and try to win that.
Game 3: Tampa Bay 5, Minnesota 3
Pregame
Ryan: It’s not the way we would write it up. This hasn’t been good. We talked about Price and how important that game against [starting pitcher Alex] Cobb was, and we didn’t get that, and then we have to face Price, and this guy is no slouch today. He’s pretty good as well.
This hasn’t started out the way we had hoped or planned, but we’ve gotta regroup here and figure out a way to grind out a couple at-bats here. Our starting pitching gave up the long ball. That didn’t help any either. Once you get in a hole, like yesterday, you could feel that it just wasn’t a good feeling.
Yeah, this isn’t the way we had planned it.
We aren’t even .500; we’re a long way from .500 (44-52), frankly.
We have a fair idea of what we’re doing, where we’re at and who’s ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of clubs to jump through. Without coming out and saying it, until we get to .500, we’re not exactly where we want to be at this juncture in the season. We’re not at .500, in fact, we’re way below .500. That’s not a good spot to be in.
Gardenhire: I haven’t even looked at any of that (in reference to being at 999 career losses before the game). I don’t think it’s going to happen [in jest]. We’re gonna win the rest of our games.
I’m gonna say the same thing about 1000 wins as I will about 1000 losses, it means you’ve been managing a long time and you’re getting old.
I’ve been managing a long time.
Correia gives up four runs in the first three innings. A late charge proves fruitless and the Twins are suddenly nine games back with the July 31 non-waiver deadline looming.
Postgame
Gardenhire: We all saw it: 90 pitches in four innings, and it was a hard 90, not an easy 90. He labored through it, kept the damage to a minimum. But he labored through it. He really didn’t have command of too much today, and he had to fight through everything, and there were men on base, and the game was really dragging with him.
I think he was probably worn out by the fourth inning.
Starting pitcher Kevin Correia: I feel like I just didn’t get in a good rhythm with their approaches.
If you throw 90 pitches in four innings it’s not that easy, but I was fine. I could have kept going.
Gardenhire: You know you’re running into good pitching with these guys, they got some arms, and you’re gonna have that. Today was disappointing because we had opportunities to get runs in, and we didn’t get them in. We’re desperately needing those guys to pick up some of those runs and get us back in that game, and then we can ad-lib a little bit.
But we left too many out there. The chances we did have were good chances to score runs, and we didn’t take advantage of them and that’s frustrating.
Correia: Obviously if you’re in a situation like this, you have to win and win a lot of games. You can’t go out there and lose two in a row, three in a row -- you’ve got to string long winning streaks together to get back in it. We’re not in an ideal position, we’re not in a position where we’re looking like, ‘Oh, we need a run and we’ll make the playoffs.’
Gardenhire: I can’t worry about [the trade deadline]. We just gotta keep trying to win ballgames. That’s upstairs, and there’s conversation going on. We’ll have meetings, we always do at this time of the year, talk with the staff and Terry and Rob and see where they’re at and see what they want to do.
But we’re not supposed to worry about it in the clubhouse. We’ve got to play baseball, we have to win baseball games, we have to figure out ways to score runs and win baseball games. That’s what we have to do in here.
Closer Glen Perkins: It’s frustrating. Our expectations are higher than that, and we need to play better. That’s all it comes down to. We had a chance to win in the last couple days, and we could have pitched better, obviously, and we had a chance at the end of the game that we didn’t find a way to win.
We didn’t make pitches early in the game and didn’t get the hits we needed late in the game.
Perkins: I know that I’m not going anywhere. We need to play better or there are going to be new faces here, and that’s what it boils down to is that either we play better or we’re going to have a new look, and that’s just how the game goes. I’ve got 24 other friends in here that I wouldn’t like to see go, but that’s the way it goes.
That’s the way the game works and they’re trying to make this team better, and if it means trading guys, than that is what it is.
Game 4: Minnesota 4, Cleveland 3
Pregame
Ryan: [The sweep] wasn’t good because we had a lot of momentum coming out of the All-Star Break and all those festivities; everything went great. All of a sudden we come here and we had a beautiful crowd on Friday night, and I think there was 35,000 maybe on Friday, and we just never got into the game. It’s like the air was let out of this place.
And then Price sent us down; we didn’t have a chance in that game. Yesterday we had a couple chances, maybe more than a couple. We had opportunities there at the end. Certainly we were in the game, we just didn’t get the hit that we were looking for, and now we’re trying to gain the trust and the faith of the fans again.
It was disappointing; there’s no doubt about that. You don’t have to just ask me, I think that clubhouse in there have faith in their heads, they just never got anything going. The starting pitching never set the tone: we were down 2-0 or 3-0 every game. I don’t think too many people brought this up, but Tampa Bay’s record was worse than ours when they came in here. We had a better record.
We didn’t play like it.
It was just a deflating series. Taking two of three there would have been beautiful. Winning one of three after the first two games would have been okay if we salvaged one. It’s just not a good feeling walking out of the ballpark those three days. ‘We’re gonna be okay’: Nope. Right now, we’re not okay.
Gardenhire: We all know they’re talking about it, and everybody’s talking about it. If you go on TV and you watch all these shows, they’re talking about it. They’re talking about all these different moves; all kinds of names get thrown out there.
It’s the same way every year, and you just have to put it on the backburner. It’s easy for me to sit here and say that, but out there in the clubhouse, they all know what’s at stake and there’s a lot of players where names are getting thrown around, and who knows who started them?
You just have to live with it; it’s part of the game. It’s a fun part for some people and not so much fun for others. Our guys are trying to cope with it as best they possibly can.
Ryan: That’s a dangerous question (whether anyone is untradeable) because you don’t want to put anything out there that’s not accurate. I can easily say, ‘Well, we’re in a bad spot, almost anyone on this club would be available.’
There’s some guys that have no-trade rights, we honor that. There are some players that under no circumstances, unless you were really overwhelmed -- you’ve always gotta listen. There’s no question about that. You can’t, before you even hear a team start talking, you’ve always got to pick up the phone and you always should be listening, and you’ve got to at least be receptive to what somebody is saying.
There are players on this team that would be very difficult to trade, even in the situation we were in the last four years. We have talent on this ballclub. There would be interest in many, not just one.
Gardenhire: I’ve always said: If your name is involved in these things, you should be happy because somebody likes you, somebody might be thinking about getting you and bringing you over.
Honestly, it should be a compliment to guys. I know, like a [Josh] Willingham, I know he likes it here, his family’s here, the whole package, and I think their thoughts are more towards having to move their families and all those things moreso than anything else. And he’s been traded before, so it’s not a first for him, but they should look at it as a sign of respect. People are showing respect to you as a player, if they put your name out there, as being one of the guys somebody’s interested in.
Willy’s definitely one of those guys, I’m sure. A right-handed power guy, so it should be a sign of respect for them. I think they should take it as a compliment and try not to worry about it, but it happens. It’s part of it.
My name was not mentioned when I played. Well it was, but it was back to Double-A.
Willingham hits a go-ahead homer after Cleveland ties the game in the eighth…and remains in Minnesota for the rest of the homestand. Johnson does not get his first major league win, however, and is demoted after the game.
Postgame
Gardenhire: The ballgame was another one of those games I thought [starter] Kris [Johnson] did fine; a lot of pitches again in five innings. He didn’t attack like we were hoping he would. First inning was good, and after that he kind of picked around the zone a little too much for us. But he competed, he gave us a chance, that’s all we ask -- give us a chance -- we scored some runs early.
[Set-up man] Casey [Fien], I think he just missed the zone. He was going away and got one over the inner part of the plate and guy’s swing was up the middle, but fortunately for us Hammer (outfielder Josh Willingham) put a really nice swing on a ball, and Perk came in and did a nice job, and a nice win for us, a really nice win.
Game 5: Cleveland 8, Minnesota 2
Pregame
Ryan: I told [Kris Johnson], I wished I could change places with him because he’s got all kinds of ability.
We’ve got to get him to the point up where it’s just he doesn’t have any worries other than to get people out. Forget the pitch count and all that stuff; just get people out as far as you can go, and we’ll handle the rest.
We could have given it another go, but I figured, ‘Alright, that was enough to give him another go.’ He needs to get better than that. He’s better than that.
Pino allows three runs in the second, and once again in the second Minnesota fails to drive in runs with the bases loaded. The Twins score a run in the seventh to make the game 4-2, but reliever Matt Guerrier gives up four runs in the top of the ninth.
Postgame
Gardenhire: Pino battled, hung in there pretty doggone good, we just didn’t do much offensively. We had some chances again and misfired a couple times when we had some opportunities. And then the game got a little out of whack there at the end. Matty didn’t have a good night.
Second baseman Brian Dozier: Everything is good. We know what’s around the corner and stuff. We try not to think about all that stuff, but at the same time, we feel like we’re still a good ball club and that we can win some games. We’ve just go to start pitching better, playing defense better and especially hitting better with men on base, that’s all.
Game 6: Minnesota 3, Cleveland 1
Pregame
Gardenhire: When we got out there Matty said, ‘I’m fine.’ Which is kind of embarrassing.
I was embarrassed for going out there when he told me he’s fine, and I basically screamed at him. Told him he might as well get somebody else out.
So yeah, that wasn’t fun.
Long reliever Anthony Swarzak gives up only one run in a spot start, the lineup provided run support, and the Twins win the series against Cleveland. Guerrier, however, is designated for assignment following the game.
Postgame
Gardenhire: A great win for our ballclub, winning a series, and a really tough moment here because Matty Guerrier (designated for assignment) means a lot to a lot of us in here in this organization and in this clubhouse. He’s a first class guy and a really tough moment here. It kind of takes away from a big win.
Game 7: White Sox 5, Minnesota 2
Pregame
Ryan: We’ve got a lot of history with [Guerrier], me especially. We claimed him off waivers from the White Sox way back when. (Guerrier was actually acquired from Pittsburgh in 2003, but Chicago originally drafted him). We brought him in on a claim, and all of a sudden we’re designating him. It’s not the way you like to see things go, but he’s a class guy and he’s been a great member of this organization for about a decade.
Gardenhire: It was brutal. That’s not fun at all. We had him when I first broke in as a manager. He was a big, huge part of our bullpen, a guy that just always got it done. You could give him the ball and never worry about him. He’d take the ball every day, it didn’t matter how many innings, he never complained. He’s one of the more likeable guys you’ll have in a uniform and a lot of fun to be around, so that was really hard for all of us -- Terry, myself, Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and Scotty Ullger have been around him a really long time.
In addition to designating Guerrier, the Twins traded Kendrys Morales, a mid-season acquisition, to the Seattle Mariners for reliever Stephen Pryor.
Ryan: Well, we’re at that time of year. We aren’t doing well on the field, and we’re getting to the trade deadline here, and there was interest in Kendrys. We thought it was wise before we got to that free agent period later in the year, it made sense to see what we could get in return, so that’s the reason. Nothing more; nothing less. It’s that time of year.
Gardenhire: It’s always good for a player when a player is interested in you. Kendrys has been there before. I think he liked it here. His family was here and he enjoyed his time here, but we kind of put ourselves in a position where we’re at that spot where this is gonna happen and put him in the middle of a pennant race out there, which is fun for him.
And we’ve got a nice little pitcher back here. A big kid who can throw the baseball. We’ve seen him, and it’s gonna happen. I got the call this morning, and there you have it. Now we’ll see where we go from here.
Hughes is injured in the third inning when an Adam Dunn liner hits him in the shin and is forced to leave the game. Reliever Samuel Deduno gives up three runs in four innings and Chicago starter Hector Noesi goes 7.2 innings and gives up only two runs.
Postgame
Starting pitcher Phil Hughes: It’s tough. We come off that road trip where we played pretty well, and everyone thinks we have this great big homestand, and we have a chance to turn things around a little bit, and it obviously hasn’t been the case so far. But we just have to keep plugging away.
The nature of a guy like Morales who was a big addition when we got him, and then that’s kinda the situation you’re in. You have an opportunity to move a guy and get some prospects, and so that’s the way it goes. We know it’s our responsibility to play better, and then we won’t be in that situation.
We just need to keep plugging away, there’s no alternative.
Game 8: White Sox 9, Minnesota 5
Pregame
Gardenhire: We’re pretty thin out there. We need Kevin to pitch a little bit for us here. Definitely Swarzak and Deduno are out. Pressly threw a couple last night, he’ll probably say he can go, but the rest of them are one inning guys more than anything else.
Correia gives up 10 hits and seven runs in four innings. Logan Darnell is called up to start the next game, replacing the injured Ricky Nolasco.
Postgame
Starting pitcher Kevin Correia: I made my two worse pitches of the night to two of probably their best hitters: two hanging curveballs. Hanging back, it’s pretty much the only two pitches I’d like to have back.
Just overall it just didn’t go that well. We hit the ball decently at the end of the game, and at that point we were down too many runs.
Saturday’s starting pitcher Logan Darnell: It’s probably the same emotion, close to it. It’s different this time because I actually know the game I’m throwing so it’s not that feeling of just waiting and waiting and waiting. This is a little better that I know when I’m going to start the game, but as far as going out there it’s the same mind frame as last time: just try to get each guy out and see how long I can do it for.
Game 9: White Sox 7, Minnesota 0
Pregame
Ryan: It’s that time of year. It’s about the toughest 10-day period for any GM is this time. This and the Winter Meetings, the Winter Meetings are like this -- people coming and going, a lot of rumors certainly.
It’s probably a seller’s market just because there’s so many teams still in contention for that second wild card. There’s a lot of teams four or five games out. Tampa Bay, a week ago we were talking about them…selling. They were about four-and-a-half out, so that should be past. They’ve got as good of a chance as anybody with that pitching staff.
Let’s say you put together a stellar August and September, all of a sudden you’ve got a chance to win the division.
We were nine back about this time six, seven, eight years ago, we won that thing going away. We had a good club. We had a good club and things didn’t go well, then all of a sudden we got even and we took off.
Nine games out. What are we? Twelve, 11 now?
Where we’re at right now feels a heck of a lot different than where we were then.
No additional trades are made. Darnell gives up seven runs in his first major league start, and Minnesota cannot scratch across a run against White Sox ace Chris Sale.
Postgame
Gardenhire: He made some decent pitches.
He made enough pitches, but unfortunately it’s five innings again with a starter. We’re fortunate that Pressly came in and did a heck of a job, limited the number of pitches and then we got Perkins in, but we were pretty thin out there. We needed innings.
Game 10: Minnesota 4, White Sox 3
Pregame
Gardenhire: It’s frustrating for myself and my coaching staff because we go out there and do the routine every day, and yesterday was one of those days where the starting pitcher just ate us up. For this homestand, we had pretty big hopes on this homestand to do some good, and we really have not played well at all.
We wanted this 10-game homestand. We sure didn’t handle it very well. We talked about: This is a good chance to do things, and we just haven’t played well at home, which is just really disappointing.
Ryan: We have to get back to competitive baseball. We haven’t been competitive here the last week or so. The White Sox have dominated us, and they aren’t all that far different from us with their record, but it doesn’t look like that right now. The guy, Sale, yesterday, all right: He dominated us, but so did Noesi, so we’ve got to get back to competitive baseball, giving ourselves a chance. We haven’t had much of a chance to win a game here for a while, since Cleveland for sure, so that’s where we need to go.
Yeah, it’s disappointing because we came out of the break, and, Tampa Bay, they weren’t much different than our record either. Well, that has changed. There are people going one way, and there are people going the other. We’re going the wrong way.
Pino gives up two runs in six innings, and Perkins loads the bases with one out and a one-run lead, but the Twins hang on to avoid a four-game sweep against their rivals, finishing the homestand at 3-7.
Postgame
Gardenhire: We needed a win. We said that. It’s fun shaking hands, it was very entertaining at the end with Perk out there. I think if you’re a player out there, you got two choices: Do I want the ball hit to me, or do I not want it hit to me? And I think a lot of our guys were iffy on that, but it was tense, it was really tense.
Outfielder Sam Fuld: When that ball came out of the sun, it was a big sigh, yeah. It’s never easy.
Gardenhire: It’s been really frustrating around here and we know we haven’t hit much, and we haven’t pitched very much in this homestand. It was a pretty disappointing homestand, but as I said before, to get the win today was huge. A lot of smiles out there, a lot of relief and you’ll talk to more than one guy out there, but they’ll all tell you the same thing -- that was probably as intense of a ninth inning that you can get.

Perkins: We’ve been inconsistent. I’ve said many times that we’re not a bad team; we’re just inconsistent. And that’s because we score runs one day, and we don’t the next day; we pitch good one day, and then we don’t pitch good the next day. That’s been the most frustrating part is that we’re just inconsistent.

Hopefully we’ll show up. Hopefully we’ll go to Kansas City and play the baseball that we’re capable of. And do it on offense and defense and with our pitching and everything.

Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.