The Twins' impressive late-summer run, which has seen them go 26-10 since the All-Star break, has largely been keyed by strong starting pitching. After posting a 4.60 ERA and surrendering 68 homers in 88 games prior to the Midsummer Classic, Twins starters have been good for a 3.38 ERA with only 14 homers allowed in 36 games since the season's unofficial midpoint.
That improvement can be a bit misleading, since the Twins have played 19 of those 36 games against the Orioles, Royals, Indians and Athletics -- the four lowest-scoring offenses in the American League. Other games have come against a sub-.500 Angels squad and a White Sox team that was in the thick of the division race up until recently but is spiraling and dropped two of three to the Royals over the weekend.
Indeed, it appears that the only playoff-caliber team the Twins have faced during their impressive post-All-Star stretch has been the Rays, in a series where the Twins' pitching staff had its share of both highs and lows.
Tonight, the Twins will finally get another legitimate test as they head into Arlington to face the AL West leading Rangers. This series poses a number of challenges that should tell us a lot about how both clubs might potentially fare in an October series.
The Twins will have their pitching depth tested right away tonight, as they send Nick Blackburn to the hill to take on the American League's fourth highest scoring offense. Blackburn was, of course, an utter disaster over the first half of the season with the Twins, but he did post a 2.49 ERA and 65 percent grounder rate during his four-start stint in the minors. How will those numbers translate to the bigs, where Blackburn will be taking on a division-leading club led by MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton?
While Blackburn's results will be interesting and meaningful, especially if Kevin Slowey's elbow injury turns out to be a long-term concern, the remainder of the series will provide a better glimpse into a potential postseason match-up, as the Twins will send out Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano on Tuesday and Thursday. Brian Duensing, who starts between the two on Wednesday, is looking increasingly likely to grab a spot in a playoff rotation as well based on recent performance.
Given that both struggled in their last turns on the hill, I'll be interested to see how Pavano and Liriano rebound. The spotlight will shine brightly on Liriano, who was originally scheduled to start tonight but had his turn pushed back due to a bout with dead arm. He must show improved command to restore confidence that has begun to wane with three straight erratic outings. He's got his work cut out for him, as he's scheduled to face Cliff Lee on Thursday.
Of particular interest, for me, will be seeing how the Twins' top two starters handle Texas runners on the base paths. Pavano's complete inability to stop opposing base runners from swiping bags has been perhaps his greatest downfall in what has otherwise been a stellar campaign. Opponents are 28-for-34 on stolen bases against Pavano in 25 starts. Liriano hasn't been quite as bad, as he's only allowed 10 steals on 13 chances, but he did allow Juan Pierre to steal second without a throw twice in his last start.
The Rangers rank fifth in the AL in stolen bases. The Rays rank first. If they want to win in October, the Twins must prove that they can control the running game. So far, they've not been able to do that very well even with their best pitchers on the mound and their Gold Glove catcher behind the plate.