The Minnesota Twins have done so poorly this season that even success hurts. On Wednesday, when Brian Duensing notched a critical strikeout with the tying runs on base, catcher Ryan Doumit leaped in celebration -- and seriously strained his right calf muscle, taking the team's RBI leader out of the lineup for the near future.
At least the Twins managed a win that day, an all-too-rare occurrence in what has been an often embarrassingly bad start. Entering play on Friday Minnesota was 12-26, the worst record in the majors, and already 10 games out in the American League Central, a division the Twins won six times in nine years from 2002-10. Said manager Ron Gardenhire recently, "We're in a hole. A big hole."
One that is potentially historic. Fifty years after the 1962 Mets pushed the possibilities of ineptitude to a modern-era low by going 40-120 in their debut season, the Twins are on pace for a 51-win season. Only four other teams over the past half-century have been so disastrous over a full 162-game season: the 1963 Mets and 2004 Diamondbacks, both of which went 51-111, the 1965 Mets that went 50-112, and the 2003 Tigers, who finished 43-119, the worst record in American League history.
Gardenhire's nine sometimes seem every bit as bad as Casey Stengel's bunch. The Twins opened the season by losing their first four games and have since had three losing streaks of at least three games and another of six games, yet it took until their two most recent games for them to win two in a row.
Six weeks into the season, the Twins' offense has produced the fewest runs and total bases in the AL and the second-fewest home runs. Their pitching's even worse. The staff has the American League's highest ERA (an MLB-worst 5.26) and batting average against (.284). The starting rotation has combined for a mere 11 quality starts, fewest in the majors.
"It's getting embarrassing," said Jason Marquis after being knocked around by the Indians on on Tuesday.
The mood in the clubhouse that afternoon was grim. Some of the players hid in the showers or weight room. Chris Parmelee, the Twins' Opening Day first baseman who was 0-for-3 on the afternoon and is hitting .179 on the season, cleared out his locker, demoted to AAA. Joe Mauer, Minnesota's franchise player, spoke in hushed tones to reporters. "We've got to stay positive," he said, his voice weary and unconvincing. "There's a lot of negativity. Guys are getting frustrated."
With good reason. Here's a sampler from some recent losses:
• On May 7, Erik Komatsu -- one of the waiver-wire pickups GM Terry Ryan has been reduced to finding since he has no one desirable enough to trade -- missed a ball in leftfield that plunked him in the glove, this after spooking Denard Span into letting a ball fall between them when Komatsu didn't yield to centerfielder.
• On May 9, Alexi Casilla, filling in at third base after Danny Valencia preceded Parmelee to Rochester with his .190 batting average, errantly played the bunt on a two-strike count. At the opposite corner, Mauer turned a double play ball into an error when his throw hit the lead runner.
• On May 10, in Marquis' previous start, Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion hit a popup 10 feet in front of the plate--a routine play for a Little League team but not for the Twinkies: Doumit didn't track the ball, Marquis dashed in but pulled up short and that night's third baseman, Trevor Plouffe, watched the ball fall in front of him. Instead of being out of the inning, Marquis returned to the mound with the bases loaded.
The comedy of errors has transformed this team from ballplayers to buskers in spikes.
The tragic flaw to this comedy has been the starting pitching. Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano were expected to anchor the rotation, but Baker wound up on the DL needing Tommy John surgery before throwing a pitch, and Liriano's 0-4 start and 9.45 ERA banished him to the bullpen. Marquis (2-3, 6.68 ERA), Carl Pavano (2-3, 5.14) and Nick Blackburn (1-4, 8.37) have all failed to go deep into games, burdening the bullpen and spotting opponents' early leads that the offense has not been able to overcome.
Their offense has been equally inept. They've been no-hit (by the Angels' Jered Weaver) and don't have a single player with more than seven home runs. Even the M & M boys -- former AL MVPs Mauer and Justin Morneau who led the Twins to division titles in 2009 and 2010 -- have become the Disappointing Duo. Mauer's .265 average is a shadow of his career .322 mark, and injuries have reduced Morneau to mediocrity. The Twins' designated power hitter is batting .241 with just five home runs and 12 RBIs and has already missed two weeks with a sore left wrist.
In addition to the playing field and the trainer's room, the Twins' problems stretch to all corners of the clubhouse. Since Michael Cuddyer left as a free agent for Colorado, no clubhouse leader has taken his place. Denard Span, the fourth-longest tenured Twin with five years of service, has stepped up with pep talks to younger players, but he has not fully filled Cuddy's shoes. A man of faith, Span's not one to rant -- he got so angry during one team meeting last year that he said he almost cussed.
Span personifies Minnesota Nice, a trait that runs deep in this team. These guys may sulk after losses, but no one's throwing tantrums to protest the losses. The younger bunch that came up through the Twins' ranks doesn't have the credibility that older guys like Morneau and Mauer, who helped the Twins dominate the division in the last decade, do. "They're losing guys," one source close to the team said. "They've been losers all along."
Perhaps more unsettling for Minnesota's fans is that relief is not in sight. The Twins don't have anyone to trade, other than perhaps Span, who could be replaced by Ben Revere, a stellar centerfielder whose bat hasn't kept pace with his glove. Liriano, who once looked like an ace the team could build around, would fetch nothing on the market, nor would the injury-plagued Morneau. And there are no blue-chip prospects proving themselves fit for major league employment.
In years past, the Twins have gotten off to slow starts and turned things around, but coming off of last year's 99-loss season, this year seems to be more of the same -- only worse.