As we move toward the middle of August, it's coming time for fans to figure out what mindset they should bring into the final eight weeks of the season. Do the Twins actually have a legitimate chance of battling back and making a playoff run, or has their recent run of poor play -- along with a string of unfortunate injuries -- essentially doomed their chances? Let's break it all down.
With 51 games remaining, the Twins sit three games below .500 at 54-57. They are 5 games out of first place and trail two teams in the AL Central standings. Their recent play has been downright ugly; they've dropped seven of their past nine and their pitching staff has surrendered eight or more runs in six of those contests. If all that sounds gloomy, it is. The Twins are playing very poorly right now and they're sliding fast.
But, all things considered, they remain in somewhat decent shape at this point. Of the Twins' 51 remaining games, 27 are at home -- where they have gone 31-23 (.574) up to this point. Twenty-seven of the remaining 51 games on the Twins' schedule also come against either the Royals, Indians, Orioles or Athletics -- the four worst teams in the American League in terms of win/loss record. Additionally, the Twins have several games remaining against the two teams in front of them in the standings, with six against the White Sox and seven against the Tigers. This will give them ample opportunity to make up ground directly.
You often hear about a team "controlling its own destiny," but in this case it really rings true. If the Twins could find a way to get on track and play good ball over the final several weeks of the season, they actually have a pretty good shot at capturing this division despite their current disadvantage in the standings.
Whether or not the Twins are capable of getting on track and playing good ball is a different matter entirely. In order to win 90 games, the Twins would have to go 36-15 from here on out, which is pretty much unthinkable. In order to win 85 games, they'd have to go 31-20. That's a bit more realistic, and in all honesty 85 wins just might win this division depending on what happens with the Tigers and White Sox.
Getting to 85 wins would require the Twins to play .600 ball from this point forward, which will be close to impossible if their pitching staff continues to perform as it has lately. And given that the offense has been more than sufficient and features perhaps the best middle-of-the-lineup attacks in the league, it seems fair to say that the team's fortunes are all going to come down to the pitching.
So, can the rotation turn things around and perform adequately over the remainder of the season? Well, Scott Baker was going very well prior to his latest hiccup in Detroit. And even with that rough outing taken into account, since the beginning of June, Baker has posted a 3.87 ERA and 70-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 79 innings. He has also cut down significantly on his hideous home run rate from the first couple months of the season. I think we can feel pretty confident in Baker heading down the stretch. The other four starters all carry serious question marks:
* Carl Pavano was excellent in his Twins debut, but he was awfully hittable during this time in Cleveland this year. If he maintains his strong command and benefits from some good luck, he's capable of posting a sub-4 ERA from here on out, but he'll need to avoid the implosions that haunted him with Indians.
* Nick Blackburn was a tremendous surprise over the first few months of the season but has been hit hard by Mr. Regression over the past month; in his last five starts he has posted a 7.22 ERA while allowing a .376 batting average, and the Twins have gone 1-4 in those games. The Twins need him to bounce back and start rattling off Quality Starts like he did during the first three months of the season.
* Anthony Swarzak performed admirably over his first eight major-league starts despite relatively unimpressive peripherals, but in his two August starts he has allowed 13 runs -- 11 earned -- on 17 hits over just four innings of work spread across two starts. It's entirely possible that the league is catching up with Swarzak and I'm really not convinced that he's prepared to succeed as a full-time big-league starter, but at this point he's really the Twins' only option so we must hope he can bounce back and find a groove over his remaining starts. The alternative is that the Twins turn to another untested rookie like Brian Duensing or Kevin Mulvey, and in that case the outlook would not be a whole lot better.
* Finally, there's Francisco Liriano. I wrote about him extensively yesterday and I truly believe he will be the key to the Twins' success over the final weeks of the season. If he can't harness his fastball and improve on his erratic past couple outings, I don't think the Twins stand much of a chance. Even with a soft schedule, it will be tough to string together any winning streaks while relying on Baker, Pavano and Blackburn as their top three starters. But Liriano has better stuff than any other starting pitcher on this team. If he can perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majority of his remaining outings, while Baker and Pavano chip in with above-average production and Blackburn reverses his recent struggles, the Twins might have a shot.
That's obviously a lot to ask, and the bullpen remains a concern, but the Twins certainly have a lineup capable of winning games when supported by adequate pitching. When that lineup is taken into account, along with a favorable remaining schedule and the fact that neither team currently ahead of the Twins in the standings is really all that great, there's no reason for fans to completely give up on this team. Not yet.
That could all change in a short span of time, though. If the Twins continue to slide, they will find themselves with a deficit too large to overcome. Indeed, the next couple weeks will decide whether the September call-ups should be viewed as reinforcements or auditions.