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Tumbling Twins trying to get back on track

By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- There is no other way to put it: The Minnesota Twins are off to a terrible start.

With a 12-23 record that's the worst in the major leagues, the defending American League Central champions are in a huge hole as the quarter mark of the season approaches. The Twins are already 10½ games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians.

"Yeah, it's only May and there are still 4½ months left, but we can't dig ourselves too big a hole," outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "There's definitely a sense of urgency, without a doubt. But it's not so much urgency to win. It's urgency just to play better. We've got to worry about that before we can worry about winning. That's all of us, myself included."

Their pitching has problems, the defense has been substandard, and the hitting? That has been historically bad. Over the last 30 seasons, only the 2010 Seattle Mariners averaged fewer runs per game (3.17) than the Twins have so far (3.23), according to research by STATS LLC.

The Twins had a day off Thursday to regroup before beginning a three-game series at Target Field against the Toronto Blue Jays today. The last time they were this many games under .500 was 11 years ago, before manager Ron Gardenhire took over.

"It's no secret we're struggling. Every asset of the game," said closer Matt Capps. "You can't get too down. You can't get too high. You've got to be right in the middle somewhere."

Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano, the front of the rotation making more than $12 million combined this season, have been roughed up frequently. Joe Nathan and his $11 million salary have been banished to the bottom of the bullpen as he tries to rediscover his rhythm.

The most glaring deficiency on the pitching staff, though, has been a loss of control.

The Twins walked 17 batters in their two-game series against the Detroit Tigers this week, and their average of 3.9 walks per nine innings is the second-worst in baseball, ahead of only the Chicago Cubs (4.0).

Even through 35 games, that is a sharp deviation from the organization's decades-long philosophy of acquiring and teaching pitchers to keep the ball in the strike zone and trust the fielders behind them to stop it when it gets in play.

The Twins have had eight of the 22 best walks-per-nine-innings ratios of the past decade, including of the top seven overall. The 2003, '05, '06, '08 and 2010 teams each walked 2.5 batters or fewer per nine innings.

"It's easy to sit here and dwell over it and think the world's coming to an end, but it's not," right-hander Scott Baker said. "We're doing the best we can. Eventually we think things will turn around."

The Twins are baseball's ninth-most expensive team this season, with a franchise-record payroll that's surpassed $112 million. Joe Mauer's $23 million salary is stuck on the disabled list, along with key contributors Delmon Young, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Jim Thome.

Young is expected to be back on Friday from a strained left oblique muscle.

"Hopefully Delmon's first in line of a few of 'em to come back soon," Cuddyer said.

Mauer is recovering from a frustrating condition called bilateral leg weakness and hasn't played since April 12 -- with not set timetable for his return.

"It's frustrating even if we were playing well, because I still want to be out there playing," Mauer said. "Yeah, you know you could help the team and a couple of guys are banged up, and you want to get out there and help your teammates out."

The rash of injuries has forced the Twins to summon reinforcements from Triple-A Rochester, 10 in all and seven who are currently on the 25-man roster.

That has exposed a critical lack of depth at the top of the farm system, the dearth of major-league-ready talent crippling the Twins this spring. Catchers other than Mauer have nine total hits, and the middle infield is unsettled while Nishioka is out with a broken leg.

"Sure, we're going to have some good at-bats probably from some kids that are going to not be as good probably as some of the veterans would, but bottom line is this is the big leagues and they're in the big leagues," Gardenhire said. "And we have to continue to work and continue to try to make 'em better."