MINNEAPOLIS - The American League Central title never figured to be the Twins' to lose this season, but their inability to gain traction in the division is a consequence of their poor play within it.
Over the weekend at Target Field, the first-place Detroit Tigers won their third consecutive series against Minnesota, which has lost seven of nine AL Central series while compiling a 10-17 record.
Trailing Detroit by 7½ games, the Twins are in the midst of a 15-game stretch that includes 13 against division opponents. With the last-place Chicago White Sox coming to town for three games starting Tuesday, the fourth-place Twins have another opportunity to create some separation between them and Chicago and keep the Tigers in their sights.
"It is big," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "We've got to start making hay against guys in our own division. They're kind of scuffling like we are. But at the same time, day in and day out, you've got to come out prepared and play some good baseball."
The Twins, who are 20-19 outside of the division, were off Monday.
Minnesota seems to have stabilized a pitching rotation that caused so many headaches the past two seasons. In the last 13 games, starters have allowed only three home runs -- two surrendered by P.J. Walters in Sunday's 5-2 loss to the Tigers -- while compiling a workable 3.59 earned-run average.
But the club remains six games below .500 because of its surprising inconsistency at the plate and glaring lack of clutch hitting.
"I still think we're going to hit," insisted general manager Terry Ryan. "I've said that from spring training on. We haven't really had one of those runs where you say the offense is really coming alive."
Through Sunday, the Twins ranked among the bottom third of the league in batting average (.242), runs (269) and home runs (56). While Minnesota was in the middle of the pack hitting with runners in scoring position (.253), the Twins were last in the AL hitting with runners on third base and fewer than two outs (.247).
"We're supposed to be better than that offensively," said manager Ron Gardenhire. "Now we've got our pitching going; we've got to get our hitting clicking just the same. We're still not that far away. You know you're close to being even better than you are, but we still have to get it done. We've misfired a lot with men in scoring position lately. You have to clean that up."
The Twins will travel to Cleveland for a three-game series starting Friday, then go to Miami for a two-game interleague interlude against the Marlins before hosting Kansas City for four games to close out June. They still have 39 AL Central games on the schedule, including a 23-game binge in August.
That's plenty of time to make a statement against opponents who, so far, have done most of the talking.
"Any stretch is an important stretch for this club," said Ryan. "Seven games under .500 or whatever it is -- that isn't going to get you very far."
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