By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins brought Jim Thome back for another season to be a mentor in the clubhouse and a home run hitter. They didn't plan on him having to serve as sort of a team counselor, too.
With the Twins stuck with the worst record in the majors at 16-32, players have acknowledged the increasing difficulty of maintaining an optimistic outlook. After their latest loss on Wednesday, Thome talked about the importance of a one-day-at-a-time approach and keeping a positive attitude that teammates can latch onto.
He said he looks at the standings every day to see how the division-leading Cleveland Indians fare, reminding himself that the 14½-game deficit can't be made up all at once.
"You want to try to do the best you can to gain ground, but you can't do it overnight. It takes a long process," Thome said, adding: "Baseball is a weird thing. I've seen crazy things happen."
The Twins start a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday.
"We've got a lot of talented players and a lot of guys with a lot of pride," general manager Bill Smith said on Thursday. "We put ourselves in this mess. We're going to have to dig ourselves out, from top to bottom in this organization."
The last time the Twins started a season this poorly was 1999, a year during which they used 18 different rookies and won 63 games. They're actually on pace to win even fewer than that, with a .333 winning percentage that has them pointed toward a 54-108 finish.
The eventual return of injured star Joe Mauer, plus starting middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, ought to be enough of a lift to help avoid such a fate. With a minus-88 run differential through 48 games, the worst in the majors by nearly 40 runs, it's clear that the absence of the 2009 American League MVP is just one of many flaws that must be fixed.
"The last few games, I don't feel like we've played poorly," starting pitcher Brian Duensing said. "If we had been winning all year and been playing the way we have, we wouldn't think anything about it."
The Twins lost two of three games to the Seattle Mariners earlier this week, but they sounded more upbeat than they had in awhile afterward while pointing to signs of progress despite the defeats.
Moral victories won't keep anyone satisfied, particularly not on a team with the ninth-highest payroll in baseball at more than $112 million that has made the playoffs six times in the past nine years. This, though, is the situation they're in with summer fast approaching. Their Triple-A team is tapped out, with 11 players already called up at least once who started the season in the International League with Rochester. Big contracts and injury concerns have minimized Minnesota's assets for possible trades.
Mauer was scheduled for a full workout in Fort Myers, Fla., on Thursday as part of the team's extended spring training program. Smith said Mauer's return to catching is "imminent" but said his schedule is "a little bit fluid" as the team's medical staff evaluates his progress. Mauer is recovering from an unusual condition of weakness and soreness in his legs -- plus a beat-up shoulder -- and has missed the past 38 games.
Manager Ron Gardenhire was asked this week if the team regrets putting Mauer on the roster at the start of the regular season, after a scaled-back spring training that was supposed to keep him fresh as he regained strength following arthroscopic knee surgery done during the winter.
"How was he doing at the end of spring training? He was swinging really good, and he was healthy," Gardenhire said. "You want to DL a guy that's killing the ball and healthy? That doesn't make much sense."
The manager continued: "If we'd have known after two weeks he was going to all of a sudden be like he is today, sore and beat up all over, I think anybody would say, 'Wow, maybe we should've done this,' but that's kind of ridiculous, really, when you were doing what he was doing out of spring training."
So the Twins will try to get some momentum going, hoping Mauer is back soon and knowing there are dozens and dozens of games left for them to at least put on a better performance if catching up in the division race is a lost cause.
"We've gone through a very difficult stretch here in the last month," Smith said. "Our players and our staff are as upbeat as you can be. I think Jim Thome said it best: You just have to come to work every day. ... We dug this hole, and we have to get ourselves out of it."