Minnesota (45-43) and Oakland (44-44) begin the second half of the season Thursday in the opener of a four-game series at the Metrodome.
The Twins and Athletics are both in third place in their own divisions, with Minnesota eight games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and Oakland nine games back of the first-place Los Angeles Angels in the AL West.
Both teams are looking for a repeat of the second halves they had last year. Minnesota went 49-27 after last season’s break, while Oakland went 48-26. The Athletics’ .649 winning percentage was the best in the majors while Minnesota’s .645 percentage was second-best.
However, this is Oakland’s biggest deficit at the break since 2001, when the team trailed Seattle by 19 games in the division and was seven back of the wild card. The A’s went 58-17 in the second half of that season to win the wild card.
“It’s the same thing every year if you look at how we do in the first half,” Oakland’s Rich Harden said. “It seems like some things don’t go our way. After the break we always turn it around. I don’t think anybody is too concerned. We need to start playing better but I think that will come.”
The second half for both teams will depend heavily on the health of several key players.
Defending AL batting champion Joe Mauer missed nearly five weeks for the Twins because of a strained quad, and Rondell White has missed all but three games because of a tear in his right calf. Despite that, Minnesota ranks ninth in the majors in runs per game (4.95), thanks greatly to All-Stars Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter combining for 43 homers and 143 RBIs.
“A lot of people have counted us out already,” Hunter told the team’s official Web site. “But I’m like, man, once we get everybody back healthy and get the hitters and pitchers going at the same time, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to be three teams trying to win the division and the wild card.”
For the A’s, the biggest question will be the health of their pitching staff. Harden and Esteban Loaiza as well as relievers Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero have all spent time on the disabled list. The team has used the disabled list 16 times this season.
“What’s been disappointing is the number of injuries to key components of our team,” first-year manager Bob Geren said. “Every team expects injuries and we have had so many more than normal. That’s been the most difficult part of the first half.”
While Oakland has had problems trying to make due without several players, the injuries did allow for Chad Gaudin (8-3, 2.88 ERA) to emerge as one of the team’s most surprising and reliable pitchers.
Gaudin, who will start Thursday for Oakland, was one of the team’s best pitchers behind Dan Haren and Joe Blanton in the first half. He comes into Thursday having allowed two runs in his last two starts, spanning 14 2-3 innings.
The right-hander is 1-0 with a 4.05 ERA in one start and two relief appearances against the Twins. He allowed two runs and eight hits in five innings on June 3 in Oakland’s 4-2 victory over Minnesota.
The Twins counter with Scott Baker (3-3, 5.71). Baker benefited from 14 runs of support in his outing last Friday against the Chicago White Sox, and he needed them after allowing seven runs and nine hits in five innings of the 20-14 win.
The right-hander has made one start against the Athletics, allowing three runs and five hits in five innings of a 10-4 win on Sept. 21, 2005.
Oakland won two of three from Minnesota at McAfee Coliseum in June in the first meeting between the teams since the A’s swept the Twins in last year’s AL division series.