And there the Twins sit atop the Central, having won three of their last four and owning the fourth-best record in all of baseball. And though the studs have kept the train on track, it's those little pieces of coal that keep the line churning.
Unless you really like Keanu Reeves, "The Replacements" is a measured movie at best. However the title may prove an apt label to borrow for the Twins' first five weeks of the season. Excluding the Nathan privation for a moment, the most alarming loss considering long-term application is surely the absence of Joe Mauer for the past three games due to a deep left heel bruise. With slated backstop backup Jose Morales still rehabbing a right wrist injury in extended Spring Training, the addition of Drew Butera to the lineup has come pretty much as advertised. The Twins are just 1-3 in the four games Butera has started, and the "Good catch/No Hit" catcher, while playing solid defense (1 error, 60 percent caught stealing), claims just a lone single in 13 at-bats (.077).
Enter 22-year-old Wilson Ramos to the mix. Apparently, Ramos has yet to be informed that Major League pitching generally offers a higher degree of difficulty than that of Minor League offerings. The ball must look like a grapefruit to this kid, who's gone 7-for-9 with three doubles in his two game introduction to the Show.
Continued production may be deeply desired of Ramos should the Twins seek to remain in the A.L.'s top three in On Base Percentage (.365), batting (.279) and run scoring (140) teams. While Mauer was a tardy entrant to last year's lineup, missing the team's first 22 games with his back ailments -- the eventual MVP wasted little time playing catch-up, hitting a bomb in his first swing of the season and batting .500 in his first 10 games. Those numbers fortunately belied Mauer's historically slow returns from injuries of the past.
In his rook season of 2004, Mauer attempted to return from his bum left knee after missing nearly 50 games in April and May. He went on to clip just .259 in his next 10 games before ultimately calling it a season. The ensuing year, Mauer missed four games in late May/early June with a groin injury. His next 10 games? Just a .250 average. In '07, Mauer missed 29 early season games with a bad left quad, then proceeded to hit only .220 in his first 10 games back. Later that year, he missed nine more contest with a left hammy ailment and returned
While the pill won't forever appear a pillow to young Ramos, those Mauer numbers suggest his bat may be needed for more than just a few hot early-May games. Mauer's May surge from '09 no doubt did a lot to erase many' a measured return.
And while Ramos has grabbed deserved ink in recent days, the wealth of his Replacement brethren also deserve kudos. Save Brendan Harris' batting struggles at third (batting just .200 in 14 games there) while filling in when Nick Punto was out -- the rest of the fill-in's have performed with aplomb. With Clay Condrey yet to see the field and with Pat Neshek on the 15 Day-DL, young Alex Burnett has proven a sound righty option from the pen, sporting a decent 3.75 ERA while eating up some relief innings and allowing none of his five Inherited Runners to score. Lefty Ron Mahay has allowed three of his 9 Inherited Runners to cross the plate, but owns a 0.00 ERA in Jose Mijares' stead. When Nick Blackburn missed a start last weekend for family reasons, Jeff Manship slipped in for a Quality Start against the Indians. With Justin Moreanu out for two games with a back problem, Michael Cuddyer seamlessly filled in at first. Androunding back to third: while Harris has had his offensive struggles this season, 25-year-old rookie Luke Hughes knocked a HR in his first Major League at-bat and played two errorless games at the hot corner. And of course, bringing Nathan's name to the conversation finds his replacement Jon Rauch claiming a 7-for-8 save line in this young season.
Over the long haul, spare parts don't win Championships. But the performances of these respective replacements speak loud toward both the Twins' depth, and the club's cohesion. Sports are about falling down -- winning is about picking one another up.