It's no secret that the Twins' mostly excellent play over the last month has had a lot to do with their much improved offense and the two-headed monster at the top of their rotation. One area where the Twins have excelled that is not given much credit, however, is their bullpen. Despite some early struggles, the Twins rank first in the league in bullpen ERA. The nice thing about that is that as good as the bullpen has been so far, it is entirely likely that it will only be better from here on out. Here's why:
Jesse Crain, who posted a 7.50 ERA in April and a 6.97 in May, appears to have put his early struggles behind him (since then, he has a 2.18 ERA). As good as their numbers have been, there is no reason to think that Joe Nathan or Juan Rincon will not continue to dominate in the last two months. Over the past few years, they have firmly entrenched themselves as two of the elite relief pitchers in all of baseball. Willie Eyre, who has been pounded all year with a 6.60 ERA and .339 opponents' batting average, will in all likelihood start seeing his appearances go to the superior Pat Neshek. Kyle Lohse, who has been unspectacular, will probably be gone by the trading deadline. The only guy who is probably due to regress some is Dennys Reyes. It's hard to imagine Reyes, who has been mediocre at best for the entirety of his career thus far, to continue holding opponents to a .224 average and a 1.52 ERA. That said, even if Reyes sees some decline in his numbers, it would not be a huge deal seeing as how Ron Gardenhire does not go to him particularly often in the first place (Reyes has pitched just 23 and 2/3 innings through the team's first 91 games).
It is easy for fans to overlook a great bullpen -- after all, if the starter exits the game with a lead we pretty much expect the bullpen to hold it and seal the victory. However, the Twins' relievers have provided a lot of quality innings this year and that has been extremely important to the team's success. The Twins have won a lot of late, close ball-games this year, and without the steady work of the bullpen, they would find themselves a lot further behind in the Wild Card Race than 6 games. If they are to continue to close that gap over the next couple months, the continued success of the relief squad will be crucial.
Some other notes:
* I was reading the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, and towards the back I came across an article on Francisco Liriano and the hot-hot Twins. Here's one excerpt of the article that I found particularly intriguing:
Since June 15 Minnesota has released free-agent signee Tony Batista (.303 OBP and six errors in 50 games at third base), unloaded shortstop Juan Castro (.258 OBP) to the Reds and designated another off-season pickup, DH Rondell White (.182 average), for assignment. Now thriving in their places: 28-year-old third baseman Nick Punto (.350 average in his last 10 games), 26-year-old shorstop Jason Bartlett (.312 average, .411 OBP through Sunday) and 24-year-old outfielder Jason Kubel (seven home runs), each of whom is also a defensive upgrade. "The Batista signing, I didn't understand," a Twins player said last weekend. "And we expect Rondell to be an every-day DH even though he's never been one? From Opening Day we should have just gone with the kids."I'd be really interested to know which Twins player said that, but obviously we'll never know because if the writer had revealed his identity he would be in some kind of trouble. Anybody have a guess? I almost want to say it sounds like Torii, but then again I can't imagine him saying anything negative about his boy Rondell. Brad Radke has been known for speaking his mind... he is certainly a possibility.
* Speaking of White, he is an interesting topic right now. The rash of injuries the Twins have experienced lately have put pressure on a lot of players, but perhaps none moreso than Rondell. While it would be nice to see guys like Jason Tyner and Josh Rabe perform well, not too much can be expected of them considering their dearth of major league experience. White, on the other hand, is the experienced player who was brought in for $3 million this off-season to hit, and now that the Twins are missing three veteran outfielders, they need him to come around more than ever. Fortunately, White has shown some signs of life. He hit his first home run on Sunday and last night, after recording outs in his first three at-bats, he came through with a huge two-run single with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, giving Nathan some breathing room and essentially sealing the win for the Twins.
*It took an unusually long amount of time, but the injury bug has finally bitten Nick Punto. Punto pulled up gingerly at third base in the fourth inning and eventually came out of the game with what has been diagnosed as a "jammed left knee." It is extremely unfortunate, not only because Punto has been extremely productive at the plate this year with a .313 batting average and .395 on-base percentage, his ability to play nearly every position on the field has become increasingly useful considering the number of players who have gone down as of late. I haven't heard much yet as to the severity of Punto's injury, but if he ends up having to go to the DL, the Twins will be in serious trouble. As Aaron Gleeman notes, the Twins are running extremely thin on replacement options in their minor league system.
Let's not forget that Punto was hitting well last season before getting hurt in June, and after returning from that injury he was complete trash. It would be an awful shame if history were to repeat itself.
* Tonight we will be treated to a great pitching matchup, as two of the game's best young pitchers face off in the form of Liriano and Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir. It will be interesting to see how Liriano performs in this game, coming off of his worst start of the season. I personally think he will bounce back with a great outing.