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Twins turning it on with plenty of time left

June 15, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — Heading into the month of June, the Twins were 20 games under .500 and 16 1/2 games out of first place. Injuries were piling up, and it was beginning to look like a lost season in Minnesota.

In just the past two weeks, the Twins have become one of the hottest teams in baseball. All of a sudden, the outlook in Minnesota is getting brighter, and there are certainly plenty of reasons for Twins fans to be excited.

“I think they’re going to be all right,” former Twins right-hander Jim Perry said. “I think if they go out and get these series and win three games in a series or win two out of three, they’ll be right back in the running.”

Shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka returned to the club on Wednesday, appearing in a Twins uniform for the first time in months after he suffered a fractured left fibula in early April. After putting in plenty of work at extended spring training and a seven-game Minor League rehab stint, Nishioka is expected to make his Target Field debut against the White Sox on Thursday.

Just one day after Nishioka’s return, All-Star catcher Joe Mauer will rejoin the Twins on Thursday after a seven-game rehab of his own. Mauer had been out nearly as long as Nishioka with bilateral leg weakness, leaving a big hole in the lineup.

With Mauer and Nishioka in the lineup together again, the Twins are getting closer to the roster they started with out of Spring Training.

“I think it’s exciting, yeah,” designated hitter Jim Thome said. “Especially with as hard as those guys have worked down there, Nishi and Joe, and the rest of the guys here obviously have done a great job lately. So it’s kind of exciting to see where our team could go.”

Thome should provide Twins fans with plenty of excitement over the summer himself.

While he’s been slowed by an oblique injury and, more recently, a strained quad, Thome remains just seven home runs away from 600 for his career. Thome would become the eighth player in Major League history to reach the milestone, and the first since Alex Rodriguez did last season.

Another individual honor worth tuning in for is the Hall of Fame induction of Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven. A two-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, Blyleven was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this year in his 14th year of eligibility.

Blyleven will be inducted on July 24 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

On July 16, it will be Bert Blyleven Day at Target Field, as the Twins host the Royals. Blyleven will have his No. 28 jersey retired by the Twins in a pregame ceremony.

Minnesota’s current pitching staff is worth getting excited about as well, with the starting rotation entering Wednesday having gone 7-3 with a 2.38 ERA through the first 12 games of June. Over that stretch, Twins starters recorded 55 strikeouts with just 14 walks, while holding opponents to a .259 average and recorded eight quality starts.

This month has seen the pitching improve greatly from the first two months when Twins starters went 7-14 with a 4.97 ERA in April and 6-9 with a 4.17 ERA in May. As the starters have improved, the Twins have been in nearly every game this month into the late innings.

“It’s been great,” Cuddyer said. “These guys have been great, and that’s another reason why we’ve been winning over the last couple weeks.”

Even the bullpen has been strong in June, allowing just three earned runs for the month entering Wednesday, posting a 0.98 ERA over 27 2/3 innings of work. Overall, the pitching staff had a Major League-best 2.02 ERA in June through 12 games, a full run better than any other team in the American League.

If the Twins continue to pitch as they get key parts of their offense back into the mix this month, their chances are good to continue riding their current hot streak.

While they’ve dug themselves into a bigger hole this season than in the past, the Twins have made a habit of improbable late-season comebacks. With the way things have been going lately, there’s plenty of reason for fans to think the Twins could make a run at the division title again in 2011.

“I don’t see why not,” Cuddyer said. “But right now, we’ve just got to go out there and continue to play each individual game and hopefully win.

“[But] we can’t have the mentality of going in there saying we’re chasing guys. We have to worry about winning each individual game. And if we do that, hopefully, when you look back at the whole thing, you are where you want to be.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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