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Jim Souhan — Twins’ top 2 starters haven’t pitched like it

MINNEAPOLIS — After 86 games, the Twins are a third-place, .500 team. We could continue blaming the players they don’t have — a second baseman who can hit and a right-handed reliever who throws hard. We would be wiser blaming the players they rely on every day — their starting pitchers.

As punchless as the Twins are at second base and through the bottom of the order, it is their rotation that has kept them from taking the lead in the mediocre AL Central. Specifically, it is the pitchers who were supposed to lead the rotation who are to blame.

This spring, the Twins decided that Scott Baker should start on Opening Day, and that Francisco Liriano, although perhaps more talented than Baker, would be better suited emotionally to starting on Day 2.

Baker and Liriano, whatever the order, were supposed to be the two aces of the staff. Instead, they’ve been immense disappointments who have derailed a top-heavy team.

The Twins’ five young starters were supposed to represent a team and franchise strength. Only one of them has proved durable and outstanding this season — Nick Blackburn.

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Baker has an embarrassing ERA of 5.31. Liriano, after meandering through five unwatchable innings against the Yankees in the Twins’ 6-4 loss on Thursday, has an embarrassing ERA of 5.47. Shockingly, after he threw 105 pitches on Thursday, his ERA went down by .02. That is an indictment of his season.

Kevin Slowey, whose impressive 10-3 record is more the result of run support than pitching excellence, has a mediocre ERA of 4.86. Glen Perkins, impressive at times, has been limited to 12 starts because of injury and illness.

Don’t be fooled by Slowey’s victory total. Blackburn has become the staff ace, going 7-4 with a 2.94 ERA.

The Twins didn’t have to feel ashamed about losing on Tuesday and Wednesday, when they faced CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, respectively.

Thursday, though, they had Liriano, facing Alfredo Aceves, a talented right-hander working as a spot starter. The matchup should have favored the Twins. It didn’t, and the reason it didn’t is a clue to the Yankees’ dominance of the Twins: Baker and Liriano look as if they’re afraid to throw strikes against Yankees veterans.

Asked the reason for getting swept in this series, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "Starting pitching. We were behind every game. ... They make you work. They put a lot of pressure on you because they have so many good players up and down the lineup."

The Twins, though, have had postseason aspirations since 2001. The concept of facing good teams and deep lineups should not be new or intimidating. "You can’t make a mistake against them," Liriano said.

It’s better, though, to make a mistake early in the count and allow the occasional home run than to put your teammates to sleep and create big innings with seven-pitch walks.

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Baker displayed no gumption Tuesday, and Liriano matched him Thursday.

The leaders of your pitching staff are required to pitch well. They also are required to set an example by throwing strikes, displaying confidence and creating a pace that enlivens their teammates. Baker and Liriano did none of the above.

The Twins could use Freddy Sanchez to play second base. They could use a hard-throwing right-hander to bolster the bullpen, although the relievers have performed admirably of late. They could use a veteran pinch-hitter off the bench.

None of those additions would matter, though, unless the starting pitchers — specifically Baker and Liriano — become who the Twins thought they were in March.

Twins starters have compiled a 6.25 ERA on the homestand. They offered little resistance during a three-game sweep against the Yankees. Whatever other problems the Twins have, Baker and Liriano are the reason they are no better than .500 on July 10.

Jim Souhan writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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