What happened to the Twins?

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What happened to the Twins?

The White Sox clung to a slim lead in the AL Central after their game on July 18, 2010. But it was clear to anyone watching Minnesota was the better team, and it was only a matter of time before they blew past the White Sox en route to their sixth AL Central title in nine years.

Through eight games against the Twins in 2011, the White Sox were 1-7 and had been no-hit by Francisco Liriano. By July, when the Twins took three of four from the Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, it was established that Minnesota was a bad team. Yet the Sox still couldn't beat them.

But in the final 10 games against Minnesota last season, something finally clicked for the White Sox. Zach Stewart nearly threw a perfect game on Sept. 5 in Minneapolis. A month earlier, they swept away the Twins in a three-game series at Target Field. Overall, the Sox won eight of those 10 games against Minnesota in the season's final two months.

The Sox didn't eradicate some curse against Minneosota. Instead, it would appear that the Twins' poor pitching and questionable front-office decisions finally caught up with them against a team that, simply, was better.

Minnesota went 63-99 in 2011, the second-worst record in the majors and their worst season since a 22-year-old A.J. Pierzynski and a 23-year-old David Ortiz had cups of coffee in 1999. Through about one-fourth of the 2012 season, Minnesota is 14-27. This time, it's the worst record in baseball.

Pitching has been Minnesota's greatest ailment. As a staff, Twins pitchers have an MLB-worst 5.43 ERA, and there may not be relief in sight. A 4.86 staff FIP -- a good predictor of future pitching success -- is similarly the worst in baseball.

Minnesota's bullpen doesn't deserve to be lumped in with its starters, though. The Twins' relief corps hasn't been bad, sporting a middle-of-the-pack 3.61 ERA heading into Tuesday.

It's been the starting rotation that has dragged the Twins into the depths of baseball's standings. Through 41 outings, Twins starters have a 6.67 ERA -- that's nearly three runs higher than the ERA of White Sox starters. Nick Blackburn, Liam Hendriks, Francisco Liriano and Jason Marquis have combined for an ERA near nine in 24 starts, although none of those guys may wind up starting a game for the Twins any time soon.

P.J. Walters and Scott Diamond will start against the White Sox, and they've provided some relief in five combined starts. But neither are going to strike many batters out, and neither represent a long-term solution. For years, the Twins had enough pitching depth to fill in if someone needed to be replaced in their rotation. They don't have that anymore.

Making matters worse, the Twins' front office has made some questionable moves in recent years. They traded JJ Hardy for hardly a fair return and overpaid for Matt Capps in the form of catcher Wilson Ramos (who would've allowed them more flexibility with Joe Mauer than, say, Drew Butera).

Marquis has bombed, as has Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Their defense has taken a hit -- remember how those old Ron Gardenhire teams played such immaculate defense? That's not the case anymore.

For years, Minnesota's pitching and defense went hand-in-hand. They had some dominant arms -- Johan Santana, Liriano for a few seasons -- but they were aided by fantastic defense. As those dominant arms left or struggled, they were able to get by with the Nick Blackburns of the world by still having great defense.

Without that high level of glovework, Minnesota's pitchers have struggled. It's no accident the Twins has ranked last in the American League in hits and strikeouts per nine innings in the last two seasons.

And, of course, injuries have bludgeoned the Twins in the last few years. Mauer, Scott Baker, Justin Morneau and a host of others haven't been healthy in the last few years, and the lack of those players -- either on the field or producing at a high level -- has been the icing on the foul-tasting cake of the Twins' struggles.

The Twins come to Chicago winners of four of their last five games, including a two-game sweep of Detroit at Comerica Park and a series win over the Brewers in Milwaukee.

But the one loss in there, which came Sunday, saw the Twins fall to Milwaukee by a score of 16-4. It was a painful reminder of where Minnesota stands.

In dead last.

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

It doesn’t sound as if there’s much ambivalence among the White Sox about Chris Sale’s expected return on Thursday.

Manager Robin Ventura said Wednesday he expects things to be “fairly normal” as Sale is scheduled to pitch the finale of the Crosstown series after serving a five-game suspension for insubordination and destruction of team property. Adam Eaton said teammates should have no reservations about Sale’s coming back after his actions Saturday left them in a bit of a bind. And pitching coach Don Cooper said he’s the first to forgive and that everyone has situations they might later wish they’d handled differently.

“Open arms,” Eaton said. “He’s our teammate. He’s our guy. All of the things that are swelling around about his character, who he is as a player … he’s my brother and I enjoy every second with him on and off the field. Can’t be a better person. I’ll be excited to see him and I’m sure he’ll be in the same form he’s been the entire year — go out and perform and be Chris Sale.

“I’m sure he’ll be well-rested and a clear mind for him I’m sure is going to be a good thing. We’ll welcome him back.”

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The pitching staff could use some innings from Sale without question. When he didn’t pitch Saturday, the White Sox filled those innings with a committee of relief pitchers. Prior to Tuesday’s win, the bullpen had pitched 19 1/3 innings the previous four games.

But the White Sox have handled the drama extremely well. They’re 4-0 with one game left in Sale’s suspension and they look forward to having their ace back. Cooper said he hopes to move on, sentiments that were previously echoed by Ventura and executive vice president Kenny Williams.

“Welcome back, let’s go,” Cooper said. “Let’s go to work. Let’s move on. Listen man, who would want to be held responsible for the (stuff) they did at 22, 24, 26, 27, you know what I mean? He’s way too good of a kid. I don’t think anybody would. Everybody screws up from time to time or has some missteps.”

One of the actions that has caught Sale flack is his criticism of Ventura’s handling of the situation. Neither Ventura or Williams responded to Sale’s comment on Tuesday that “Robin is the one who has to fight for us.” Ventura said he wouldn’t have done things any differently and Williams applauded how Hahn and Ventura handled a difficult, “unique” situation.

Ventura said he doesn’t expect much out of the ordinary.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” Ventura said. “Players always have their teammates’ backs, and that’s no different with our clubhouse, and it’s going to be fairly normal, as far as he’s going to be prepared to pitch and our guys are going to prepare to play and it’s going to go from there.”

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

There’s a good story behind the best game of Dioner Navarro’s 13-year career. 

On May 29, 2013, Navarro — then playing for the Cubs — hit three home runs and drive in six in a 9-3 Crosstown victory at Wrigley Field. Both were career highs. 

And Navarro did it without a whole lot of preparation. 

“I got to the ballpark and I didn’t see the lineup, I thought I wasn’t playing,” Navarro recalled. “So we go out for stretch and the first group is hitting and they called my name and I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And they said ‘You’re playing.’ It was already too late to get into the group so I went inside.”

Navarro only took two rounds of batting practice in his haste to get ready. But he also took those swings thinking right-hander Jake Peavy was going to start for the White Sox, so he hit left-handed during batting practice. 

The White Sox, though, were starting left-hander John Danks, so the switch-hitting Navarro wound up batting right-handed when the game started. 

The pregame mixup hardly hurt Navarro, as it turned out. He homered off Danks in his first and second at-bats, and then launched a three-run homer in the seventh off White Sox right-hander Brian Omogrosso. 

“It was one of the best experiences of my career,” Navarro said.

Navarro is one of a handful of people to play for both the Cubs and White Sox since the two teams began their annual interleague series in 1997 (others include pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Bob Howry, Edwin Jackson and Neal Cotts, among others). His perspective from playing off the Addison and Sox/35th Red Line stops is one he said he’ll cherish after his career is over. 

“I’m really fortunate to be part of it from both sides,” Navarro said. “A little bit bittersweet because the Cubbies had lost 100 games the year before and we were onto our way to lose 100 more games that year (2013). But still the rivalry against this team was something that people always talked about. Being part of it with the Cubs and now being part with the White Sox is a tremendous experience, something I look forward to share with my kids when I get older.”

White Sox happy to retain, and drink beer from, Crosstown Cup

White Sox happy to retain, and drink beer from, Crosstown Cup

The White Sox had a little fun with the Crosstown Cup trophy after securing it for the third consecutive year.

Well, at least one player did for sure: Left fielder Melky Cabrera, according to first baseman Jose Abreu, drank some beer out of the trophy after the White Sox beat the Cubs, 3-0, Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field. 

The White Sox retained the Crosstown Cup by virtue of winning the season series in 2014 (three wins, one loss), splitting in 2015 (three wins, three losses), and assuring themselves of at least a split in 2016 (two wins with two games to play). 

This isn’t like a college football rivalry trophy that gets passed between campuses every year. And baseball players generally aren't keen to over-emphasize four or six games over the course of a 162-game season. 

But the Crosstown Cup is still a trophy, and it’s one White Sox right fielder Adam Eaton appreciated receiving again. 

“Any time you win an award — I don’t care if my grandma gives me an award during checkers, I’m excited,” Eaton said. “I don’t really care. But if you play for anything there’s some extra emphasis there. I definitely do think guys take pride in it for sure. But more pride in it that our side of town is happy with us in that sense that we’ve taken the cup back. 

“You don’t want to put too much emphasis on any particular series. But at the same time, if it makes our fans happy that we got the cup back then that’s what we do.”