A reporter asked Ron Gardenhire how many lineups he thought he had used in the season's first 60 games. "Sixty-four," Gardenhire guessed. Though the response was funny, it wasn't entirely a joke. Gardenhire estimated he's had at least 10 occasions this season in which he's written out the lineup, only to receive that dreaded call from the training staff telling him, in his words, "That ain't gonna work. Somebody poked themselves with a toothbrush."
That's the kind of season it's been for the Twins. One hole gets plugged, and another springs a leak. Or, more accurately, the holes form faster than the Twins can cover them. The correct answer to the above question, by the way, was 56 lineups in 60 games (it's now 57 in 61), and that about sums up a season of instability. "It's the unknown on a day-to-day basis," Gardenhire said. "The hardest thing is it seems like every day you write a lineup out and it changes." Gardenhire, the reigning American League Manager of the Year, has, in the past, been accused by his critics of being a "push-button manager." That was a product of routinely having a dependable bullpen, seemingly making the late-inning strategizing a breeze. Whereas Gardenhire would once bristle at such an assertion, these days he'd love that luxury. Instead, the panic button was pushed long ago and about the only button that would rectify what's happened to this club is the non-existent reset button. It can bail you out on your Xbox 360, but not in real life. In absence of such a quick fix, all this Twins team can do is put together stretches like the one they're in now. They've won six of their past seven to improve to 23-38 going into Thursday's home series opener with the Rangers. It's not enough to be electroshocked back into coherence in the AL Central race, but at least it has made life a little less miserable in the clubhouse. The injuries are the easiest culprit to blame for the Twins' unexpected demise. Thirteen players have spent time on the disabled list this year, most notably newly imported infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who fractured his fibula the second week of the season, and catcher Joe Mauer, whose mysterious "bilateral leg weakness" has cost him nearly two months and counting. No team is deep or lucky enough to have this sheer number of injuries mount without sliding down the standings. The Twins took that slide to the extreme, falling a ridiculous 20 games under .500 before this recent upswing. The other day, Denard Span was sent home early from the club's road trip because he was feeling light-headed. No doubt, many Twins fans know the feeling. This season has been enough to make anybody watching feel woozy. "This is going to be good for this organization in the long run," a Twins player said. "Because when things go this bad, you go back to basics and look at what needs to change." Beyond the obvious, likely insurmountable deficit in the standings, some very real long-term concerns remain for this Twins team. And none is more prominent than the one involving Mauer. Mauer is in the first year of a $184 million extension that will impact every financial decision this organization makes over the course of the next eight years. And he's played exactly nine games this season, with two months (read: $7.67 million) spent on the DL. He had a knee surgery in December that he should have had as soon as the Twins' 2010 season ended in October. As it stands, Mauer is in the midst of a lost individual season within a lost season for his club, and there are valid questions about what kind of player Mauer is going to be over the better part of the next decade. The Twins are going to spend a heck of a lot of money to find out. Time was, the Twins were led by the modern-day "M&M Boys" -- Mauer and Justin Morneau. The club can't afford them to become the "DL Duo." But you couldn't wish what Morneau's been through in the last 11 months on anybody. A concussion robbed him of the second half of a 2010 season that had begun with so much promise, and this year he's battled neck and wrist ailments that have combined to make him a shell of his former productive self. "He's been run through the mill," Gardenhire said. "He's really, really playing beat up. But he also realizes the situation we're in and realizes he has to be out there for this team. It's been really hard on him." Give Morneau, who is batting .230 with a .631 OPS, credit for gutting it out for the good of a team that needs him on the field. But wonder whether Morneau, signed through 2013, will again find his old MVP form. This season, the Twins have $75 million of their $113 million payroll tied into six players -- Mauer, Morneau, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Carl Pavano and Matt Capps. That left them without much of a backup plan when the injuries hit, as the farm system that once routinely churned out top talent has been mostly barren this time around. In recent days, though, the Twins have at least shown some semblance of the form that helped them win six division titles in nine years. Before this year, the Twins had a reputation for not beating themselves with defensive foibles or baserunning blunders, but such problems combined with the injuries to make for a miserable two months at the start of 2011. "When we make a mistake, it kills us," Gardenhire said. "When we walk a guy, it kills us. We've been trying to get away from that. When we do that, we play better baseball." Better baseball has arrived the past week, and more might be on the horizon once Mauer gets his legs back under him and once Nishioka returns (and, the Twins hope, solidify the middle infield). But even if the lineup gets back intact, the Twins still have issues in their bullpen, where Capps has blown five saves. The financial stakes were raised in Minnesota when Target Field opened its gates. At this point, it's hard to imagine the Twins avoiding a July selloff before the Trade Deadline. Gardenhire's lineup tally is only going to increase as the weeks and months go on. That's the short-term problem. In the long-term, the Twins need to get their stars healthy and replenish the upper levels of their farm system if they're again going to become the class of the AL Central.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.