The All-Star break was a welcomed rest for the Minnesota Twins. It was also quite the revival.
They're only 14 games into the second half, but by outscoring their opponents 97-50 and going 10-4 they've rediscovered their energy and confidence even if the success was perhaps tenuously driven by playing weak teams.
The Twins were a season-high 4½ games out of first place at the break. With five wins in a row, they started Thursday with a one-game deficit behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central division.
"I think everything is starting to click," said catcher Joe Mauer, who in just 12 games since the break is batting .404 with nine doubles, two homers and 17 RBIs.
With first baseman Justin Morneau still recovering from a concussion and second baseman Orlando Hudson joining him on the disabled list with a muscle injury on his side, Mauer wasn't the only one who inflated his stats during a 6-1 road trip against the moribund Baltimore Orioles and the reeling Kansas City Royals. Delmon Young, Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer were also notably productive.
Young's surge this month is right on par with some of the best work by his MVP-award-winning teammates in recent years. In 24 July games, he is hitting .439 with six homers, 28 RBIs and a rare-air 1.206 OPS rating — on-base plus slugging percentage — to leap to fourth in the league in batting average and third in RBIs entering Thursday's games.
Last May, Mauer hit .414 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs. In the same month, Morneau hit .361 with nine homers and 29 RBIs.
After more than 1½ underwhelming seasons trying to get on track with the Twins, Young has suddenly slapped his name on the list of AL MVP candidates. Adding a strong final two months of the 2009 season to the first four months of this year gives Young a solid case to present, with a .324 average, 23 homers and 112 RBIs during that span.
"It's good to see a lot of things coming together," general manager Bill Smith said. "We've gotten good pitching. Our offense certainly has been fantastic over the last week. It's been very encouraging. We've got a lot of baseball left to play, and hopefully we'll bring that same level of play back home."
Following their off day Thursday, the Twins face another last-place foe Friday in the Seattle Mariners. Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is Saturday afternoon, though next month also provides a chance to add players from elsewhere through the waiver process.
The Twins didn't wait to make a bold move. They traded prized catching prospect Wilson Ramos and minor league lefty Joe Testa to Washington late Thursday night for All-Star closer Matt Capps and cash considerations.
Despite a 3.16 ERA by the bullpen, the best in the league, the Twins felt it necessary to beef up their relief corps. Brian Duensing's move to a starting role created a void, and closer Jon Rauch had a 5.40 ERA in nine appearances this month.
Starting pitching had appeared to be the biggest need this summer while Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey stumbled, but with Cliff Lee, Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt now off the market there aren't any top-tier aces left even if the Twins were able to provide the right package in return. Ted Lilly could be a target, if the Chicago Cubs see a deal they like.
With strong starts in the last week by Baker and Slowey and Duensing effectively replacing Blackburn in the rotation, the Twins now don't look in as dire need of help there as they did. Especially with Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano leading the way.
"Our lineup is probably the best lineup that we've had in a couple of years," Smith said. "If we can get Morneau and Hudson healthy that'll be huge for us. Our starting pitching is coming around. Our bullpen has a pretty good track record this season. We like this club a lot, but if we can make this club better we'll do it."