Grand old trip rough on Twins

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

TORONTO – Everyone, outside of a few moose hunters without Internet access, knows about the big winners at the Republican National Convention.

The big losers?

The Minnesota Twins, and they weren't even there.

That's the point. The Twins, sent into a 15-day exile because the Grand Old Party decided to stage theirs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, lost here 9-0 Thursday night to the Toronto Blue Jays and limped home from a four-city, 14-game trip that took them across three time zones.

The Twins won the first two games of the trip, in Anaheim, Calif., then lost nine of the last 12, including all three games to the Blue Jays, who have now beaten Minnesota nine straight times going back to last season. All of the losses on the trip before Thursday's blowout were by one or two runs. The Twins led 5-1 Tuesday night and lost. They led, 4-3, with two out in the ninth on Wednesday night and lost in 11 innings.

Four of the losses were walkoffs, and ace closer Joe Nathan blew three saves.

Maybe not the best time to talk politics with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

"I don't hold that against anybody,'' said Gardenhire, when asked if he might be inclined to vote the Democratic ticket come November. "I'll still vote for the best person out there."

Had the Twins been allowed to stick around, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might have found that she and Gardenhire shared a talking point. Gardenhire, who watched a rerun of Palin's speech Wednesday night at the convention, said he spent 10 days one summer in Alaska playing for a semipro team. He said he played in a game in which the sun was shining at midnight, an Alaska tradition on the longest day of the year.

The clock hasn't struck midnight yet for the Twins, but time is not on their side.

The Twins, who began the trip a half-game behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central, return home trailing by 1 1/2 games, heading into this weekend's three-game set against the Tigers. "I take solace from the fact we're hanging in there,'' Gardenhire said, "because we haven't played good baseball."

Where they've really been hurt is in the wild-card race. Before they left on the trip, they were a half-game behind Boston in the wild card. The Red Sox, winners of nine of 12 since, now lead by 5 1/2 games, 6 in the loss column, with the Twins having just 22 games to play.

"Tough night, tough series, tough road trip,'' Gardenhire said Thursday. "I'm glad to be going home. We've got to get home and see if we can right this ship."

Twins GM Bill Smith said there was little the team could do about the schedule. Even a day game in the trip finale was out of the question, he said, because the Blue Jays' TV contract stipulates a big drop in revenue if a weekday game is not played at night.

"There are a lot of teams that have worse travel than we do,'' said Smith, who accompanied the team to the Rogers Centre. "We're in the middle of the country.

"In the grand scheme of things, if you make a list of all the trips, Toronto-Minnesota isn't a bad one. It's short, and we gain an hour. Is it ideal? No, especially at the end of this trip. But that's how it works."

When the 2008 schedule was being assembled last summer, Smith said, the Twins asked for a three-city West Coast swing, because they prefer to minimize their western trips. They envisioned playing a three-game series apiece against the Angels, Athletics and Mariners.

Instead, they got four-game sets against the Angels and Athletics, sandwiched around a three-game series against the Mariners, then had Toronto tacked on after an off-day Monday.

"The long trip wears on you, this late in the season,'' said Gardenhire, whose most taxing task on the trip, besides trying to keep his young pitching staff, was entertaining relatives who came calling in Anaheim and Oakland.

"That's when you don't get your rest,'' he said. "And you really don’t need to go over a game you just lost. But that's family.''

Total mileage, for those keeping score at home, was 6,234 miles. You have to go back to 1969 to find a Twins team taking a longer trip – 15 games in 17 days – and as Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse noted, that jaunt went south on the first stop, when Twins manager Billy Martin punched out pitcher Dave Boswell in Detroit and left him needing 20 stitches.

"These are the dog days of the trip,'' Smith said. "This is the tough part of it. We ran out of bullets tonight, but one thing about us, we're resilient.''

He might have mentioned resourceful, too. Twins rookie outfielder Denard Span said he lives in a hotel when the team is at home, too. It's room service, home and away, Span agreed, though his approach to packing – "get as much as you can in the suitcase, then sit on it" – was different than that of veteran catcher Mike Redmond.

"I took six shirts,'' Redmond said. "I only have six shirts. And I took three pairs of jeans. I sent out laundry three times."

The Twins, who pride themselves on not walking opposing hitters, have had untimely walks bite them both Tuesday and Wednesday. In Tuesday's game, the 5-1 lead dissipated when rookie lefty Glen Perkins walked the leadoff man in the fifth, then gave up back-to-back home runs, then was relieved by Boof Bonser, who walked the leadoff man in the sixth and gave up another home run.

Wednesday night, Nathan walked Gregg Zaun to lead off the ninth, and Zaun came around to score when rookie right fielder Jason Pridie, in his big-league debut, kicked a ball in his haste to field it, allowing the tying run to score.

Gardenhire spoke to the distraught rookie after the game, as did several veterans.

"I said to him, 'This is us, not you,' Gardenhire said. "'We lost, not you.' He's a good outfielder. I told him we learn from our mistakes.''

Gardenhire's hope is that Pridie bounces back. "The good thing about our team,'' he said, "is short memories. They forget things quick."

The Twins, who have always prided themselves on being sure-handed, made three errors in Wednesday night's game, all after the seventh inning. They've made 95 errors this season, as many as they made in 2007, and already 11 more than they made in 2006.

"We still play the game right, we run balls out, and bust our butts,'' Gardenhire said, "but defensively we're not as good. That's part of being young.''

The Twins recently added a familiar veteran presence with the acquisition of Everyday Eddie Guardado, the lefty reliever who came in a waiver deal from Texas. Guardado traces his Twins roots to the days of Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Rick Aguilera, and was teammates with ex-Twins Torii Hunter and David Ortiz.

About the only familiar faces Guardado saw when he returned to the clubhouse belonged to Gardenhire and the coaches, but he sensed that the old way of doing business still plays in a clubhouse full of youngsters. "For the first time (Wednesday night) I sensed some guys might have been pressing, trying to do too much,'' he said. "That's why I spoke up after the game, and told them that there are 29 other teams that would like to be where we are, and let's just have fun with it.''

So did catcher Joe Mauer, with Justin Morneau one of the pillars of this team. "I told guys, we have a lot of talent in this room. We believe in ourselves. We don't care what other people think.

"That's what we have to realize. We haven't been playing our best, and we're still right there.''

And who expected that of the Twins in September, after the departures of Johan Santana and Hunter?

"We said in spring training,'' Gardenhire said, "that our goal was to be in a pennant race in September. It's September, and we're in a pennant race.''

They're there because of rookies like Span, the speedy outfielder who was recalled from the minors at the end of June, and infielders Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher, who also were in Triple-A earlier this summer.

"Nobody expected me to be doing what I'm doing,'' said Span, who is hitting just a shade under .300 while playing superb defense. "You can kind of link that to how our team is doing.

"It feels good. I'll tell you what, it feels good. We're just hoping we can get hot the last three weeks, because we've weathered the storm.

"This is the first time I'm experiencing something like this, but I think there are a lot of teams that are kind of afraid of us, in my opinion.

"This team's not supposed to be here. We've got nothing to lose.''

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