Could it be wheels are coming off for Twins?
MINNEAPOLIS — I was nervous about the Twins as they headed into the All-Star break.
They were 11-17 in June, going from being a half-game in first place to 4 1/2 games out. Yes, they were 9-4 in the pre-All-Star portion of July, but the bullpen was creaky (especially in two walkoff losses to first-place Kansas City) and two of those wins required walkoff homers by Brian Dozier.
And I knew that after the break the Twins faced an unfavorable gauntlet: a six-game West Coast road trip (they were 11-26 in games at Oakland and Anaheim from 2011-14), then a home series with the Yankees (against whom they are 36-73 since 2000) and then a two-game set with the second-best team in the National League, Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, my fears have come true.
Here we go?
Since the Twins righted the ship after an awful 1-6 start, Minnesota fans have teetered between enjoying the new-found competence of a team that lost more than 90 games each of the past four seasons, and wondering if the wheels were about to come off.
Well, going into Wednesday's game it appeared a few lug nuts were loose and in this embarrassment of a game, some of them dropped off.
Four base-running blunders (one negated when the Pirates didn't cover third base and Shane Robertson raced back to the bag after getting caught in a rundown).
An ugly pitching line by starter Ervin Santana.
Poor clutch hitting.
Four errors, including two on one play. Third baseman Eduardo Nunez running into and knocking over Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen, making for a rare obstruction call that sent him home with a run. Abruptly the score went from 5-3 to 8-3 as McCutchen — on what should have been a single — was able to keep running and ended up scoring. It looked like a game of 8-year-olds.
Pittsburgh's five-run sixth inning represents another in a series of "crooked numbers" opponents have put up against the Twins in recent games. (The Pirates scored four in the eighth on Tuesday; the Yankees scored six in the sixth Sunday and four in the ninth Saturday; the Angels five in the sixth on July 21; and Oakland five in the third and four in the fifth in July 19's 14-1 embarrassment).
So bottom line is the team has won three of its 11 post-All-Star games; two of those were shutouts started by Santana.
The bullpen is a train wreck (7.12 ERA since the break, 3.67 before) including two blown saves by previously perfect Glen Perkins. Why he would throw Alex Rodriguez anything he could reach without a 10-foot pole in Saturday's ninth inning is mystifying.
Casey Fien allowed runs in only two of his first 18 appearances but in the last month has been scored on in seven of his 13 outings. So the Twins are now without a reliable setup man and might be wondering about their closer Perkins, who struggled late last season before being shut down in mid-September with a strained forearm.
I'm not as concerned with the batting, given the Twins have scored 41 runs in the 11 games, although clutch hitting as measured by RISP (runners in scoring position) is .232 over that stretch, compared with .282 before.
They will need Aaron Hicks to continue his post-break (.359 with 8 RBIs) ways, though.
On paper, there is an opportunity coming up. Seattle (46-56, fourth place in the AL West) comes to Target Field for four games starting tonight. Cleveland (46-54, last in the AL Central) hosts the Twins Aug. 7-9.
In between, Minnesota will need to keep its heads above water in a four-game set at Toronto, a place they've liked about as much (4-8) as the West Coast since 2011. The Twins might catch a break in that Edwin Encarnacion — who hit five homers against them in four games in 2010 and has nine homers in 149 career plate appearances vs. Minnesota — has been slowed with a finger injury.
But the Jays have Jose Bautista, who has stroked 20 home runs in 183 plate appearances against the Twins. And Josh Donaldson, with his team-leading 24 homers, and newly acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, a .300 hitter with power.
The Twins need to regain their form tonight, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at home against Seattle. Or else those wheels are likely to get more than loose.