By Jon Krawczynski, AP Baseball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- With a payroll swelling to near $100 million and a spectacular new open-air ballpark, this was supposed to be the season the Minnesota Twins took hold of the AL Central from the start and challenged the New York Yankees for the American League pennant.
Two months into the season, everything was falling into place. The Twins were 11 games over .500, Target Field opened to rave reviews and Minnesota held a 4½-game lead in the standings, clearly looking like the class of the division.
As the season turned from May to June, the Twins watched their starting rotation crumble into an inconsistent mess while injuries to Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy took some of the bite out of a potent lineup.
The Twins have stumbled into the All-Star break at 46-42 and trail the surging Chicago White Sox by 3½ games.
The Twins missed out on the opportunity to acquire ace Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners. He went to another AL power, Texas.
"We have to put a better effort forth and right our ship," manager Ron Gardenhire said after his team lost two of three in Detroit over the weekend. "That's what we talked about. The effort has to be better."
The Twins started the season 31-20, but have won only 15 games since June 1. Only Baltimore, Toronto, Washington and Pittsburgh have won fewer games in that span.
Starting pitching has been in the biggest culprit. Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and even Francisco Liriano have been shelled repeatedly over the last month. After going 5-0 in May, Blackburn is 1-6 with a 10.00 ERA and 11 home runs allowed.
"I'm sick of this," Blackburn said after giving up seven runs in four innings against the Tigers on Saturday. "Every time I go out there, I'm not getting the job done. It's not a lack of effort. I'm doing everything I can think of, but nothing is working. I'm not executing pitches, and I'm leaving way too many balls over the plate."
Baker has been pitching with tendinitis in his right elbow. The Twins have reshuffled the rotation so Baker can get some more rest through the All-Star break and Gardenhire was asked if Blackburn could be dropped form the rotation.
"Our starters are doing this too often, and it isn't one guy," Gardenhire said. "It's three or four guys. ... I don't have four new starters to put in the rotation."
The problems don't end there. The slow-footed Twins have grounded into more double plays than any other team and Joe Mauer, the homegrown swing king who signed a $184 million contract extension in the offseason, has hit just three home runs after putting 28 into the seats last year.
Mauer, the leading vote getter in the All-Star game, has been bothered by sore shoulder brought on by the daily wear and tear behind the plate. His .293 average marks the latest in a season the three-time batting champion has been under .300 since 2007 and he has just 35 RBIs, not nearly enough for a No. 3 hitter.
Justin Morneau is having another stellar season at the plate, hitting .345 with 18 homers, but he missed the Detroit series and will sit out the All-Star game with a concussion.
"You're always concerned about a head injury," Gardenhire said. "He's getting better, but the bottom line is that we're going to make sure he's healthy before we put him back on the field. There's no timetable."
Then again, maybe the Twins have the rest of the division right where they want them.
Minnesota has won five division titles since the turn of the century. Only once, the first title run in 2002, have they held a lead in the standings at the All-Star break. They trailed by 7½ games in 2003, 11 games in 2006 and 4 games last season before mounting rallies to take the title.
"We've been in this situation before, and the key is cheering for each other and staying positive," Gardenhire said.