Teams and players that are "En Fuego"
No one is hotter than the collective of baseball players that are inhabitants of the Metrodome. The Minnesota Twins are more than hot, they are surface of the sun hot. After losing to the Seattle Mariners on June 7 the Twins stood at 25-31. They trailed AL Central leader Detroit by 11 1/2 games and divisional rival and wild card leader Chicago by 11. The Twins looked like they were going down the tubes fast. A look at the standings entering today's play shows an entirely different story.
The Twins have reeled off 33 wins in their last 41 games (.805) to pull within 1 game of Chicago for the wild card spot. The Twins haven't been able to do much with the Tigers because Detroit is nearly as hot as their Midwest counterparts. The Tigers have gone 30-11 (.731) over the same stretch.
The Twins thrive off of 2 players, both left-handed pitchers, Johann Santana and Francisco Liriano. Santana won the Cy Young award 2 seasons ago and is in the competition for it this year with a 12-5, 3.04 record. He leads the league in strikeouts (158) and innings pitched (151) and has walked just 28 hitters. His teammate is one of the AL rookie sensations.
Francisco Liriano was working out of the bullpen when the Twins realized if they were going to make any noise this year this kid had to be starting. After 12 relief appearances Liriano joined the rotation and has hardly been touched since. His 1.91 ERA is tops in the majors. He's compiled a 12-2 mark while holding the league to a .197 batting average and has struck out 125 batters in just 107 innings. Oh, and he has one save too.
The JM boys have led the offensive assault. Catcher Joe Mauer, 23, and first baseman Justin Morneau, 25 have been battering opposing pitchers all season. Mauer has been torrid all season and leads the majors with a .375 batting average. With 8 home runs and 54 RBI he's just one behind his season totals of last year. Morneau has been the Twins constant power threat. A career .247 hitter entering 2006, Morneau is hitting to the tune of .309 while already establishing career highs in home runs (26) and RBI (81).
The Twins are getting contributions from everywhere. Rookie Jason Kubel and veteran Michael Cuddyer are starting to show the form that has been expected of them. Even Rondell White, who looked washed up, has begun to hit.
The Twins do need another bat though and fortunately for them they have big league ready pitchers such as Scott Baker, Matt Garza, and Boof Bonser that could be moved for a free agent such as Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee. With one of the best closers in Joe Nathan and solid veteran Brad Radke in the rotation, these Twins could be making some noise in October.
The Chicago Cubs and their fans always have high expectations. You can't blame them when you look at the names in their starting rotation. Maddux - Wood - Prior - Zambrano. Unfortunately mixed in are the expectations that Wood and/or Prior will be on the disabled list for a lengthy period of time. This season has proven no different. The Cubs received an additional blow early on when All-Star 1st baseman Derrek Lee went down with a fracture wrist in April. Lee missed two full months before returning to the Cubs lineup (he was just placed on the DL again with further wrist problems). Slow starts by Aramis Ramirez, Juan Pierre, and others have the Cubs looking for only their 40th win of the season today.
The bright spot though has been Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano has always had the overpowering stuff, but has not always been able to harness it. April was a disaster - 2 losses, 4 no-decisions and an ERA over 5. It's been another story since then as Zambrano has gone 10-1, winning his last 8 decisions (11-3, 3.27 overall). His ERA for May and June was under 2. Zambrano was my pre-season pick for Cy Young. In early May I was beginning to wonder what I could be thinking. Now it's NL hitters that Zambrano have thinking.
Zambrano's teammate Aramis Ramirez has been red hot over the last week. Entering today's play Ramirez had belted 7 home runs in 6 games, many of them tape measure shots. Ramirez had hit over .300 the last 2 seasons and had belted 36 and 31 home runs over that time period. But on July 5, he was hitting just .248 and had 15 home runs. Since then Ramirez has raised his average 21 points by hitting .381 (21-55) with 8 home runs, the bulk since July 20.